Atonement is about how a young girl’s inexperience leads her to a mistake with tragic consequences. At 13 Briony Tallis sees her older sister in a few compromising positions with their father’s ward, and misconstruing the images leads her to a false memory so powerful it shatters the lives of everyone involved. Atonement is presented as the confessional novel penned by a much older Briony.
Reading Atonement was like being dragged around by someone who knows where they’re going but insists on taking the scenic route; only add in the torment that you yourself can see your destination as a fixed point. As your journey lengthens seemingly without decreasing the distance yet remaining, you are likely to experience weariness and regret that you ever picked up the story in the first place.
And that’s a shame really, because the structure of Atonement is so solid that it promises much better. The characters, for one thing, are all sympathetically drawn and humanized, so that I didn’t mind being presented with chapters from many different points of view, though eventually I balked at having events repeatedly retold from different perspectives. It just started to take up too much time. The prose itself is as strong as you would expect from such an acclaimed novelist, though I found it a bit wordy in places, and unevenly distributed among the characters. Personally I found the sections told from Briony’s perspective significantly more compelling than the others, even Robbie’s war-time travails.
Recently there was a bit of a controversy involving the novelist V.S. Naipaul’s statements that women are inferior writers and that he can tell within a paragraph which gender produced a given piece of writing. I do not support Mr. Naipaul in either his misogyny or his boastfulness, and I feel that Atonement is the stumper to beat all stumpers. If this novel had been written in the 18th or 19th century I would most certainly insist that “Ian McEwan” was a pen name along the lines of George Eliot or Currer Bell. This is not to impugn the novel or female novelists, by the way, but I do feel that Mr. McEwan’s prose is a bit more concerned with evocation and sentiment than the novels I more fervently enjoy.