In keeping with the all-British theme, what better book to review than one written by a beloved British author about the British class system, the war, lies, guilt, repressed sexuality and staring Kiera Knightley of Love, Actually fame (the most British movie ever). Bonus: Benedict Cumberbatch before anyone found him hot. Or he became Sherlock Holmes.
McEwan really slaps you in the face with the theme of the novel – it’s in the tile and on the cover (the initial one at least). Briony Tallis, 13, is confused by adult situations and has an overactive imagination. As a result, she tells quite a big lie, accusing her neighbor/family friend, Robbie, of raping her cousin. This not only ruins his life, but also that of his lover, Cecilia (Briony’s sister), and completely alters the purpose of her life. All in all, I’d say this makes for a horrible, unsympathetic start.
Most people focus on the love story because everyone likes a good tale about 2 people from different stations in life falling in an all-consuming, sexually frustrating sort of love that ends in tragedy before it even has a chance to properly develop.
Bonus points, if it’s during a war.
Cheers for that by the way, Hemingway.
Honestly, I find the love aspect to be just a tangent to the real core of the story. Then again, I’m not quite sure how one would sell a book about a kid that lies and then feels pretty bad about it for decades, all the while making her mistake all about her.
…I think you might be getting an idea about how I feel about Briony. It’s all good though because this is part of what makes the book so interesting.
McEwan weaves a compelling and incredibly clever prose in which he often hides hints as to what will transpire. He focuses a lot on the idea of perception – what influences it and how our subjective view affects others.
It will come as no surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed this character-driven type of story-telling. Briony is an unlikely catalyst for the plot but it’s a treat to follow her evolution and the ways in which her small, self-contained world expands into a deeper understanding of human nature and relationships. The war serves as a great backdrop for this evolution and she eventually manages to understand, from her position as a wartime nurse, that people are fragile and many actions are difficult or impossibly to undo.
And no, I’m still not terribly fond of her.
The narrative, however, makes you constantly think and reevaluate your position. In keeping with the theme, it surprises you at the end with a change in perspective that would make
a more jaded person, okay, me, doubt the honesty of the story. It’s an ironic twist that shows the subjectivity of the judgement we often dish out without a second thought. The implication of what one action may have does tend to make one, okay, me, rather paranoid.
Random fact of the day: Juno Temple, the actress who plays Lola, the cousin who gets raped, in Atonement also plays Merrin, the girlfriend who gets raped, in Horns. At least she doesn’t die in the former – well, she dies eventually, I’m sure, but not prematurely.
So, because I love being made to feel like a hypocrite by my literary choices, this books gets a solid 4 out of 5 Hail Marys.