A young girl’s imagination and a momentary lapse of judgement contribute to a momentous change of lives.
The hottest day of the summer of 1935 and, as Europe slips closer and closer to war, so Briony witnesses a series of events in the family home that, as a sheltered 13 year-old, she does not understand. By adding two and two to make five, she sets in motion a series of events that by the end of the day sees the unravelling of her privileged world and the arrest of young Robbie Turner, gardener and unofficially adopted member of the Tallis family.
Ian McEwan’s masterpiece is an enthralling yet devastating read as Turner, set for a medical career via study at Edinburgh University (paid for by Tallis senior) instead finds himself imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. But Cecilia, Briony’s older sister, is also a victim as she leaves home appalled by her family’s unquestioning acceptance of Robbie’s guilt.
Atonement is the story of a girl emotionally trapped between childhood and womanhood who spends her lifetime shamed by that one day’s interpretation of what she saw. Not allowed to question her certainty by adults once she has set the train of events in motion, it takes several years for Briony, with all the main characters long dead, to fully come to terms with her actions and achieve a degree of atonement.
As a child, Briony needed to be in control – “… she was one of those children possessed by a desire to have the world just so.” She needs to stamp her version of events on the gathered adults, to be unquestioning in the telling of who and what she saw. Accusing Robbie in the way she does leads the reader to judge her and her interpretation. But she is still only a child: an innocent abroad in an adult world where events are beyond her full comprehension. It’s this world that takes over, allowing Briony no possible respite or real reflection – or to understand the repercussions.
But Atonement is also the story of love, country, class and war – the England of old where everyone and everything had its place. For some members of the family, Robbie was guilty by default and who was, according to the matriarch, no more than a ‘hobby’ of Mr Tallis. His fall from grace is pretty swift once accused – he may be incorporated into the family, but he’s still a low-born outsider. Emily Tallis had likely deduced a great deal more of the events of the tragic night but chose to remain silent, involving as it did the wealthy guest, Paul Marshall. Even Cecilia, without any evidence, places blame on the handyman’s son.
Parts two and three move the story into the early months of the war and, specifically for Robbie, having enlisted, the retreat across northern France to the Dunkirk beaches (in itself, part two is an extraordinary achievement). Cecilia, a nurse, has cut herself off from her family. Briony is following in her sister’s footsteps and is in training in London. It is only now Briony can recognise events for what they were – but the damage has been done.
There are more twists to the story – and the atonement at the end is unexpected. But it is, to my mind, the weakness of McEwan’s deeply moving novel. The desperate loneliness and separation of Robbie from Cecilia, the practicalities of his survival in spite of his injuries in France, the sadness and deep shame pervading everything Briony undertakes along with the ‘English country house’ part one which captures so much of privilege and carefree existence of a world about to radically change.
Atonement, regarded as McEwan’s best, was nominated for the 2001 Booker Prize but lost out to Peter Carey and True History of the Kelly Gang.