This is a novel that lost the Booker Prize (in a competitive race along with David Mitchell) to The True History of the Kelly Gang. This is also a novel I was avoiding for a long time because it seemed quite likely to simply be more or less like the movie (and in plenty of ways it is), but ended up being a lot more compelling, more serious, and more thoughtful than the film ever hoped to be.
If you don’t this book or film, Briony is 13 in 1935 (or so) when she sees her older sister, now back from undergraduate education, having a series of interactions with Robbie, the housemaid’s son who has been more or less adopted by the family. What she doesn’t realize is that her sister and Robbie are slowly realizing that their years of knowing each other, playful rivalry and friendship, and slight nervous tension around each other has slowly been developing into an intense attraction and love. Briony, instead, and perhaps fueled by what she feels like is Robbie’s rejection of her, sees Robbie as a potential scoundrel who has eyes on his sister. She also finds a salacious note he’s written his lustful feelings in, and along with a little more misunderstood information she’s confirmed in his feelings. This leads her to perpetrating a false rape accusation against him (her slightly older cousin is raped but not by Robbie). Robbie is sent to prison and eventually to war (and not to medical school as he originally intended). This breaks up the family in many ways. This is bulk of the first half of the novel. The rest follows the three into their future lives.
What makes this so superior to the film is that more than half of the novel takes place before the war, and the war plays a much smaller role in the novel because of Briony’s obsession and total cloudedness regarding her “crime” and seeking for atonement.