Sunday, 27 November 2011

Making amends

Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001) begins at a stately home in the English countryside in 1935. Young Briony Tallis witnesses an interaction, between her older sister Cecilia and the housekeeper’s son Robbie, which she misinterprets. Briony accuses Robbie of a crime, tearing the family apart. A few years later, the older Briony realises that she blamed the wrong man and begins a lifelong quest for atonement.

McEwan deftly creates Briony and understands her worldview at age 13, on the cusp of adulthood, where her overactive imagination brings about her misunderstanding. He perfectly captures her immaturity and naivetĂ©. As she ages, McEwan allows us to share Briony’s thoughts while she comes to terms with the consequences of her actions.

Throughout the book McEwan directly references a number of other authors and his storytelling is reminiscent of EM Forster and Virginia Woolf. Like Adela Quested falsely accusing Dr Aziz of impropriety at the Marabar Caves, Briony’s actions have ruined many lives. While she seeks forgiveness, how can she ever compensate for her wrongdoing?

Complex themes are explored in Atonement: love and desire, childhood, imagination, family loyalty, war, guilt and shame. McEwan’s descriptive writing draws the reader in and allows full immersion in the summer heat wave, Dunkirk and wartime London. Long after turning the last page I found myself thinking about Atonement.

In 2007 Joe Wright directed the film version of Atonement starring Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan and Romola Garai. It won the BAFTA for best film and was Oscar-nominated for Best Picture. The cinematography is beautiful and there are excellent performances by the young cast. I would recommend reading the book first to experience McEwan’s brilliant writing and the depth of Briony’s character. 

Ian McEwan won the Booker prize for Amsterdam (1998). I would also strongly recommend his other work, including Enduring Love (1997) and The Child in Time (1987).