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Atonement: A Novel: Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese | ISBN: 0385503954 | 2002-03-12 | PDF (OCR) | 351 pages | 1.82 Mb

On the hottest day of the summer of 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis sees her older sister Cecilia strip off her clothes and plunge into the fountain in the garden of their country house. Watching Cecilia is their housekeeper's son Robbie Turner, a childhood friend who, along with Briony's sister, has recently graduated from Cambridge.
By the end of that day the lives of all three will have been changed forever. Robbie and Cecilia will have crossed a boundary they had never before dared to approach and will have become victims of the younger girl's scheming imagination. And Briony will have committed a dreadful crime, the guilt for which will color her entire life.
In each of his novels Ian McEwan has brilliantly drawn his reader into the intimate lives and situations of his characters. But never before has he worked with so large a canvas: In Atonement he takes the reader from a manor house in England in 1935 to the retreat from Dunkirk in 1941; from the London's World War II military hospitals to a reunion of the Tallis clan in 1999.
Atonement is Ian McEwan's finest achievement. Brilliant and utterly enthralling in its depiction of childhood, love and war, England and class, the novel is at its center a profound - and profoundly moving - exploration of shame and forgiveness and the difficulty of absolution.
Amazon.com Review:
Ian McEwan's Booker Prize-nominated Atonement is his first novel since Amsterdam took home the prize in 1998. But while Amsterdam was a slim, sleek piece, Atonement is a more sturdy, more ambitious work, allowing McEwan more room to play, think, and experiment. We meet 13-year-old Briony Tallis in the summer of 1935, as she attempts to stage a production of her new drama "The Trials of Arabella" to welcome home her older, idolized brother Leon. But she soon discovers that her cousins, the glamorous Lola and the twin boys Jackson and Pierrot, aren't up to the task, and directorial ambitions are abandoned as more interesting prospects of preoccupation come onto the scene. The charlady's son, Robbie Turner, appears to be forcing Briony's sister Cecilia to strip in the fountain and sends her obscene letters; Leon has brought home a dim chocolate magnate keen for a war to promote his new "Army Ammo" chocolate bar; and upstairs, Briony's migraine-stricken mother Emily keeps tabs on the house from her bed. Soon, secrets emerge that change the lives of everyone present.... The interwar, upper-middle-class setting of the book's long, masterfully sustained opening section might recall Virginia Woolf or Henry Green, but as we move forward--eventually to the turn of the 21st century--the novel's central concerns emerge, and McEwan's voice becomes clear, even personal. For at heart, Atonement is about the pleasures, pains, and dangers of writing, and perhaps even more, about the challenge of controlling what readers make of your writing. McEwan shouldn't have any doubts about readers of Atonement: this is a thoughtful, provocative, and at times moving book that will have readers applauding. --Alan Stewart, Amazon.co.uk
Summary: Read the Book First... but the movie is good! :)
Rating: 4
I have yet to see the movie, but I wanted to read the book first. I liked how the book was divided into parts that had relation to the story, but the reader didn't really know how or why until later. I do wish there would have been more elaboration on the story of Cecila and Robbie and their reunion and their life together; however, I know the major theme in the book was about Briony's perspective. Overall, great description and characterization... and it reflects the true naivete of Briony as a child and her maturation through experience with life and people.
Summary: Still Important Post-Movie
Rating: 5
Beautifully written. There's a scene in which the mother sits and thinks about her life that is a fascinating insight into her character. I saw the movie first and still enjoyed the book immensely.
Summary: Takes awhile to get into, but worth the ride ** warning: spoilers ahead
Rating: 4
McEwan's writing style is definitely an acquired taste--there are times when it seems like he is overwriting the novel, and we are drumming through as a reader to try to extract the next available plot event. It took me a few chapters to get moving more rapidly with the reading, but ultimately it was rewarding. While the novel does take awhile to get going, the story picks up steam towards the second half. McEwan has an ability to illustrate and pinpoint detail with great vividness, and that goes a long way in creating believable characters, and successfully moving back and forth in time.
** Warning: Spoilers and plot summary ahead, skip to next paragraph if you haven't read book**
Basically the novel is divided into four main parts. Part one begins with young Briony writing a play and awaiting her cousins as well as her brother's arrival. Briony witnesses a moment of flirting between her sister and Robbie at the fountain and then, after reading a "dirty" letter intended for Cecilia, misconstrues Robbie as being some sort of "monster". Later, while both families are out searching for her twin cousins who have run off, she witnesses her cousin Lola apparently being molested by a man. Putting all she has seen--and read-- together, she comes to the conclusion that the man must have been Robbie. Unwavering in her testimony, Briony is the one who sends Robbie off to prison despite his protests. Part two fast forwards a few years where we are given a first-hand account of Robbie's role in the war. He and his comrades encounter many grizzly deaths, and witness first-hand how brutality of battle can strip away the spirit of individuals, both physically and mentally. Robbie keeps Cecelia's note to "come back" to her as comfort and motivation to survive. Cecilia had been the only one of the Tallis family who had believed in his innocence. Part three takes the story at the same time from Briony's point of view. Living with her sin, she is now working relentlessly as a probationer in a hospital helping out fallen and injured soldiers during wartime. Much like Robbie, Briony has had her freedoms stripped from her, only she has done it of her own accord. Briony's work is a form of atonement, as she also sees war's brutal and graphic results, and tries to comfort and tend to the severely injured and the dying. Having written and not heard from her sister Cecilia, she decides one day to go out and find her sister's place. After seeing her sister, she learns that Robbie is there also, and he confronts Briony about the past, telling her that there is one thing she must do to "atone" for her past: tell everyone what the truth is. Briony leaves, apparently agreeing to do this. From here, part four fast forwards to an elderly Briony's point of view. She has gone to her doctor, and realizes that the headaches she has are an early sign of dementia. She only has a short amount of time before this condition will ultimately rob her of her mind, her thoughts, her identity and her life. Despite hearing this news, she is upbeat as she returns home, and gets there to witness many of the young grandchildren perform her childhood play, "The Trials of Arabella." It is significant because this play takes her back to the past, of that fateful day where she made her mistake. She has been a successful writer, but there is one book that never got published and that has gone through many different drafts. It is basically the story of Robbie and Cecilia, and the mistake she made to ruin their love. She tells us that the book has two different endings--one where Robbie and Cecilia live happily ever after, and the other one, in which Robbie and Cecilia both die in 1940. She chooses the first ending because as she puts it "Who would want to believe that they never met again, never fulfilled their love?" She reflects on whether she has atoned for her sin or not.
One significant issue taken from McEwan's novel is the idea of forgiveness. As the novel progresses, not only is Briony coming to terms with what her lie does to the fates of her sister and Robbie, but herself as well. We wonder whether they should forgive her for this, or what acts of retribution make up for a moment of sin. There is a sense that, although Briony is young when making her poor decision, that once her statement is taken down by the police, the fate of the three main characters are all sealed, and that they must all pay for years to come. Briony makes her form of redemption by working tirelessly during the war, and there is a sense by novel's end that McEwan wants us to forgive, or at least be sympathetic to, Briony. This seems especially true since the last two parts of the novel are taken from her point of view. However it is, it begs to the ultimate question at the end: Do WE forgive Briony?
It is easy to see how this novel was turned into a film up for an award last year, because the scenery and moments "come to life" in McEwan's writing. As far as reading, I would recommend this novel, but do so with the advice that it might take you more than one try to get through, but that it will ultimately pay off. I watched the film first before reading, but now am anxious to go back and watch the film again.

Summary: Briony as Unreliable Narrator
Rating: 5
_Atonement_ is a fine book, highly reminiscent of Elizabeth Bowen's work. But I don't understand why the common assessment of Briony as unreliable narrator seems to stop at her end-revelation that Cecilia and Robbie were killed without ever fulfilling their love.
Briony admits, in fact, to being a novelist throughout. She says she collapsed several hospitals she worked at into one. A common writing technique; after all, what is important is how her experience as a wartime nurse affects her.
Her rejection letter, which states that Elizabeth Bowen (who was said to not even work for the magazine) felt compelled to read her manuscript and loved it, is far too glowing for reality. Then there is the book's harmonious ending. Several generations of Briony's relatives assemble to see Briony's childhood play "The Trials of Arabella," which was interrupted and upstaged by the drama of Lola's sexual violation. Her cousin Pierrot ran away from rehearsals as a child, scotching the performance. Yet the final chapter of _Atonement_ asserts he was bitterly disappointed at not acting in it. To the extent that decades later he organized this performance, and is tearfully grateful to see it. This is pure wish fulfillment. Briony is giving herself a happy ending that she did not give Robbie and Cecilia--though she's still contemplating the latter.
Much more interesting is the description of the central event, Lola's sexual violation. Fifteen-year-old Lola is socially sophisticated--her mother just publicly eloped to Paris with a lover. Lola dresses and acts as much like an adult as she can. She's very pretty, dresses attractively, and her grooming and makeup are impeccable. Her interaction with the wealthy young chocolate magnate Paul Marshall is distinctly flirtatious. Like other girls of her generation, Lola would have been brought up to marry well, and Paul is an excellent catch. In another two or three years, Lola would be brought out into society, where her pursuit of a husband would be entirely acceptable.
While Briony is helping everyone to hunt for her runaway twin cousins, she checks the 18th-century "ruined villa" on an little island in the little lake. A spot that is both romantic, and easy for non-residents to locate (Paul Marshall has never visited the house before). Here she discovers Lola with a man on top of her, and immediately assumes this is a rape. Three years later, when Lola marries Paul Marshall, Briony admits the man was Paul. However, Briony, who her sister Cecilia describes as "a young thirteen," is not at the time sophisticated enough to understand the difference between consensual sex and rape. Only a few hours earlier, Briony discovered Cecilia and Robbie having enthusiastic sex in the library, assumed it was rape, and they have not had an opportunity to tell her otherwise. Very possibly Lola's sexual act is also quite willing, and Briony realizes that when she is somewhat older. Even Briony marvels that Lola "fell in love with her rapist."
When Briony discovers Lola and Paul, Paul immediately flees, leaving Lola to deal with the problems. And they have several. If it's consensual sex, Lola's aunt, uncle, and parents will be furious at her for losing her virtue. They'll be even more angry at Paul, who is a responsible adult. Paul can't immediately marry Lola to repair the damage--she's so young that "people would talk." Also, Lola's uncle (Briony's father) works for the War Ministry, and Paul is angling for a very lucrative army-provisioning contract. It's likely that Lola's uncle could make sure he didn't get it.
And here, Lola gets lucky: Briony, carefully led on, is willing to help Lola call the event a rape and to pin the blame on Robbie. Paul Marshall may merely have had a little sexual amusement in mind. But now that they've been seen, Lola could blackmail Paul into marrying her as soon as she's of age, by threatening to reveal the truth. Everything works out for them. Lola gets her wealthy husband and hangs onto him for the rest of her life. Paul gains his army contract. He also marries a woman whom he was attracted to when she was 15 and who is even prettier at 18.
I suspect that close examination of _Atonement_ would reveal additional examples of Briony as an unreliable narrator.

Summary: Simmering
Rating: 4
There's no doubt that Ian McEwan is a terrific writer. His prose...the interplay between the intricate thoughts of the characters and the descriptions of the settings are beautiful..I loved that line about Cecilia's dress worshiping the curves of her body. Those war scenes..like a piece of a Heironymous Bosch painting. So many other great bits too, but to me, I find it part of the English writing tradition to have a stew of simmering passion, often detached over-wrought and intellectualized, just below the surface which carefully never spills over. Words never said. Somber looks exchanged. Clipped cryptic meanings. Me, I happen to like things a bit more messy and expansive. Still, I enjoy Ian McEwan's measured pleasure.

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