This book’s masterful use of language makes everything I write about it seem pale in insubstantial. I don’t have the words to say how beautifully McEwan put words together. The words are good in this one, guys! The words!
Part of the reason I loved this one so much is how I related to young Briony. A lot of times, people think kids are dumb (and they kind of are, even scientifically because the lobes are still forming), but that doesn’t mean they don’t have anything going on up there. I had (and still have) a rich inner life as a kid. I didn’t have many friends and no kids my age in my neighborhood, so I only had my thoughts for company.
But even for all of the intelligence of Briony’s inner monologue, she still doesn’t have all the pieces of life yet to decipher the adult events that happen around her one summer day. A flirtation leads to a budding romance between Briony’s older sister, Cecelia, and the gardener’s boy, Robbie, but the moment is observed by Briony, still years away from understanding adult things. Briony then casts Robbie in the villian role in the stage play going on in her own head. Later that night, after several other happenstances further turn Briony against Robbie, a rape accusation from Briony sends Robbie to prison and breaks Cecelia’s bond with her family. (Briony wasn’t the victim – she was a slightly older cousin who was staying with them for the time and her character is mainly used as a plot point.)
Years later, Briony realizes her mistake, but now there’s a war going on. Robbie has been sent out to the front lines to escape his prison sentence. Cecelia has grown estranged from her family and lives in London. Briony decides to follow in her footsteps in an attempt to make amends, but also applying to become a nurse. Her plans to recant her story and bring Cecelia and Robbie back tot he family are thwarted by her own cowardice, however.
Atonement is deeply haunting and emotional. It’s going to leave you feeling drained after reading, but the best books usually do.