Book Review: Atonement

Atonement - Ian McEwan

Book: Atonement


Author: Ian McEwan


Genre: Fiction/Family/Love/World War II/Forgiveness


Summary: Ian McEwan’s symphonic novel of love and war, childhood and class, guilt and forgiveness combines all the satisfaction of a superb narrative with the provocation we have come to expect from this master of English prose. On a summer day in 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis witnesses the flirtation between her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, the son of a servant. But Briony’s incomplete grasp of adult motives and her precocious imagination bring about a crime that will change all their lives, a crime whose repercussions Atonement follows through the chaos and carnage of World War II and into the close of the twentieth century. -Anchor Books, 2001.



I must admit first that I had seen the movie before reading the book. Some would consider this a literary faux pas on my part since many readers prefer to read the source material before seeing any kind of adaption. In defense, however, I didn’t see the entire move and when I had first seen it in the late 2000s, I hadn’t even considered reading the book until now. So, while I was aware of basic facts and plot points, I didn’t have knowledge of the gritty details. That being said, I am very, very glad that I read the book.


The story is engaging almost immediately. We’re introduced to the main characters and get a sense of their thoughts, feelings,and motives. There’s young Briony, a teenager who aspires to be a professional writer and wants to be more grown-up than she actually is. Cecila is the older sister who is discontent with her life, but doesn’t know why. Finally, there’s Robbie, a servant of Briony and Cecila’s family, who is preparing to study medicine. All three characters are fully realized and could very well be living, breathing people.


McEwan is a fantastic writer in many senses; one of them is how he writes his characters. He makes you care. You find yourself frustrated with Briony, sympathetic for Robbie, and discontent with Cecila. All of McEwan’s characters make you care for them in some way or another and they never appear single-minded or without purpose. You’re not struggling to remember a minor character when he or she has been mentioned after a long amount of time has passed since he or she was last mentioned. All of his characters are alive and it contributes to making the novel better.


I know that there is a possibility that many people will have already seen the movie before having read the book, but I’m still not going to spoil much so that those who haven’t seen the move can still read this review. I will address one point quickly: The movie is a pretty faithful adaptation of the book. It’s one of the few book adaptations I’ve seen where very little of the source material was removed or changed. Even so, I would still recommend reading the book because there are various parts that make the book a little better than the movie.


The story itself, rounding out at about 350 pages in my version, is actually very condensed. Though there are time skips, the moments McEwan focuses on are very specific and expand the characters more so than the world. For the first section, the chapters are divided into third person p.o.v. chapters for multiple characters. The second section is entirely in Robbie’s p.o.v., but in third person. The third section is third person and entirely Briony’s p.o.v. The last section is also focused on Briony, but in first person. These tone changes are not distracting in any way and it’s actually incredible that McEwan can write four different sections, but make the voices of the main characters all sound different. He has a wonderful talent of capturing specific character voices and aging them well. He never makes the character suffer or insults the reader with how he handles the different p.o.v. changes.


The story is very bittersweet and tragic. You get to see the blossom of love rising between Cecila and Robbie, but one mistake changes everything in an instant. You know Briony wants to be a good sister, but, at the same time, she’s immature and selfish; she never quite learns her lesson. You want a happy ending for the lovers and you hope for one, but you never feel safe in believing in that there will be one.


It’s very compelling and dramatic, but without the corny, sickly sweet pitfalls of a soap opera. I don’t think this is a simple twisted love story. It’s also a tale of morality and learning important life lessons. McEwan’s descriptions of the British countryside are as real as his descriptions of France in WWII. I’m not a particular fan of war novels, yet I couldn’t help but keep reading so I could find out what happens. It’s not particularly gory, but super sensitive people might not enjoy it.


Overall, I give Atonement an A+ for its beautiful story, clever writing, and compelling characters.




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Thanks for reading!