Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Ian McEwan's Atonement: A Review

Book Cover of Atonement
This is my first Ian McEwan. It begins with an interesting premise - a child committing a crime because a combination of hyperactive imagination and prejudice makes her think that she saw a crime. And this is the story of her Atonement.

The backcover blurb of the book promises a saga spanning from 1920s/30s to WWII to nearly the close of twentieth century. So, technically the story of Cecilia, Robbie and Briony does follow that arc but it does not really span across such a wide timespan. One epistolary epilogue written in 90s does not a wide sweeping tale make.

That aside, McEwan writes a gripping narrative. He explores the psyche of all players - from the extremely fertile imagination of a on-the-cusp-of-adulthood Briony to the confused feelings of Cecilia and Robbie which are startled into clarity to the machinations of another child-woman, Lola to the still and active waters of Mrs. Tallis' mind. They are all explored beautifully. The metaphors are gripping, unusual. There is this one passage where he describes Briony's feeling of utter freedom as she runs. A simple and common image but he adds so many layers to the child's thoughts that you find each so intriguing. The chemistry between Cecilia and Robbie in the first scene where we see them together by the fountain is fraught with so much tension and is fairly crackling with chemistry.

So, it is a pity that when we move to Part II and III of the book, we see so little of these things. In fact, the way Robbie trudges across France, as the British troops retreat in the face of strong Germans, with only the thought of Cecilia waiting for him ("Come back. I will wait for you. Come back"), reminds me of Inman's journey to Cold Mountain and to Ada.

Nothing much happens after that. All we see are tableaux of wars - first through Robbie's eyes and then Briony's. And you feel a little cheated when you see Cecilia next, especially if you really enjoyed the romance between her and Robbie. Even The Confession (I am deliberately not elaborating here) loses the sharp focus that it needed. I did not really expect melodrama but it did not seem at all crucial. The characters' reactions are rather weary and tired and as if all of it has become inconsequential.

Before I close, I must, however, mention the slight intrigue that McEwan oh-so-subtly builds in the epilogue and which he never resolves. So, how you read it would reflect your outlook on life. I thought it was a clever touch.

Final recommendation: read it. It might not be perfect but it grows on you


  1. I'm waiting for you to review The Hunger Games :)

  2. @ Scarlett: Movie I have not yet seen - there is just one show running at 10.30 in the morning!! Book, I can oblige with :-) Soon, hopefully.

  3. I'm talking about the book :)