(originally posted 16-June-2014)
**warning: may contain spoilers**
This review was written as an essay for Modern Fiction.
Atonement is a tale set in England before, during and after World War II. This is the first book I’ve read by Ian McEwan. If all the tales are this sad, it would be hard to read another. However, this book is so exquisitely written. He has a wonderful way with words.
This is a fine novel. Beautiful writing illustrates the moods of the story in sentences such as, “The air was smooth with the scent of wax, and in the honeyed light, the gleaming surfaces of the furniture seemed to ripple and breathe.” The themes are strong and the characters full and believable. I appreciated how each character shared their part of the story. The ending was good, wrapped up neatly with a bow, though it wasn’t the ending I’d expected or wanted.
From the outset, you get the impression that the Tallis family is rather dysfunctional. Separated, removed, distant, unemotional. These are all traits I would use to describe the group as a whole. When Cecilia is describing her family, she says, “her father remained in town, and her mother, when she wasn’t nurturing her migraines, seemed distant, even unfriendly.” It appears that neither parent really has much interest in being part of this family.
The baby of the family, Briony, is indulged. Perhaps because she is the youngest, and most likely to suffer from her lack of parenting, her sister, Cecilia, tries to make up for the lack of a mother figure by stepping in, yet Cecilia herself is too young to realize the implications. Briony, as a child, lives completely in a fantasy world of her making, very theatrical and dramatic. There don’t seem to be any boundaries for this child, which leads to devastating circumstances. It is noteworthy that in the first part of the book, very early on, Briony muses that “Her wish for a harmonious, organized world denied her the reckless possibilities of wrongdoing. Mayhem and destruction were too chaotic for her tastes, and she did not have it in her to be cruel.” Yet, shortly thereafter she commits one of the cruelest acts – indicting an innocent man, destroying her sister’s happiness. Possibly, all to be the center of attention again.
Cecilia also seems like a lost soul. Very bright, but lacking parental direction or guidance. She tells us at the beginning of her story, “since coming home, her life had stood still and a fine day like this made her impatient, almost desperate.” Her mother simply wants to marry her off to the nearest wealthy man. Cecilia wants more than just that. Her sudden discovery of Robbie’s feelings for her, and hers for him, send both their worlds into a tailspin when Briony discovers this truth.
The cast of supporting characters lends credibility and fullness to this novel. Leon, the Tallises eldest, is mostly absent in this story. His character seems to simply be there to introduce another supporting character, Paul Marshall. Mr. Tallis, as well, is missing. Emily, the mother, is used briefly to show the problems in the Tallis household. She spends most of her time in a darkened room, fighting off migraines and musing about her existence. Obviously Emily cares deeply for her children, but “habitual fretting about her children, her husband, her sister, the help, had rubbed her senses raw.”
The cousins, Lola, Jackson & Pierrot, play a pivotal role in the novel, setting the scene for the central character. These children are “refugees from a bitter domestic civil war,” the possible divorce of Emily’s sister and brother-in-law, who have come to live with the Tallises until their household is sorted out. Paul Marshall is absolutely the villain of the story, and while you get an inkling of that early on, you don’t realize the full extent of his crimes until late in the novel.
Robbie Turner is the victim of this story, as his is the most maligned life. He is a full and rich character, someone to admire and like. Robbie has firmly entwined himself in the Tallis household, through is mother, the Tallis’s “charwoman.” He has also just discovered his true feelings for Cecilia and is tormented by how to approach her with them. A carelessly written letter, handed off to Briony for delivery to Cecilia, sets off a series of unfortunate events, which leads Robbie down a path that he didn’t plan.
There is an overall sadness to this story. World War II in England was not a happy time, and all the characters in this novel are touched in some way by the events of WWII. While there were brief scenes of joy and happiness, the overall mood is dark and reflective. The final chapter is a nice reflection of Briony’s life and her accomplishments. Most of all I appreciated seeing her grieve some of the choices she’d made and the lives she’d affected. The end provided closure, though not necessarily the bright and happy closure one would have expected.