Atonement by Ian McEwan

A quick rundown… A young girl’s statement changes things for the rest of her family forever. How can she atone for her sin?

Strengths: The different types of writing in each part, the raw desolation of the war.

Weaknesses: The ending makes you want to immediately flip back to the front and start again.

Why I read it: It’s a movie and the book won lots of prizes.

Pages: 351

Published: 2003

Publisher: Anchor

Setting: England, France.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

If you liked this, try: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

It’s difficult to know where to start in this review of Atonement – many people are familiar with the book and many more have seen the film with Keira Knightley (I haven’t; I thought Keira played Briony, not Cecelia). It seems from a small amount of research I’ve done (i.e. asking friends) that opinion of Atonement is divided – you either love it or hate it. I’m one of the former, so you’ll need to excuse me for my gushings.

Briony is a young girl, determined to put on a play with her cousins for her brother’s homecoming. But over the course of one day, everything changes and Briony tells a lie, which affects the rest of her family. Both she and her older sister separate from the family as they grow older, but the events of that day are never forgotten.

This is the first McEwan book I’ve read and I was told by others to be patient, that his books grow on you. While lyrically beautiful, it did take some time to get used to the style of this first section, which is quite floaty and dreamlike (and I’m told, in the style of Virginia Woolf). It also reminded me of how a hot summer day feels – kind of endless and somewhat detached. I enjoyed this, but didn’t rave about it. The second part, which describes WWII in detail, was sharply focused and graphic in comparison to the first section. I really also enjoyed Briony’s trials as a nurse – it was unsympathetically confronting. This was where I was hooked, with the shocking turn of events. And the ending…well, I felt like flipping back to the front and starting the book all over again. It made me question everything I’d read previously in the book – which of the characters were not to be trusted? Were there any holes in the story? McEwan leaves the reader to try to figure this out rather than join the dots. It’s a little frustrating, but it certainly ensures the reader will be thinking about the book long after it’s finished.

There are some light moments in this book – the khaki green Amo chocolate bar for the soldiers for instance, but most of it is about one events and how everything after is distorted – possibly forever. It is painfully slow in some places, but picks up in others. Well worth the rewards if you persevere.

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18 responses to “Atonement by Ian McEwan

  1. I think I need to give this book another chance. I only got to page 20 and didn’t like the writing style, so I gave up. But it does sound really good, especially the WWII aspect. Will link to your review on War Through the Generations.

  2. I watched the movie a few years back and remember coming out of the cinema and really not liking it as a movie but thinking it would make an amazing book. I know that sounds weird but I think it’s because my choice of movies tends to be the easy escapist kind, you know the romantic comedies and the light hearted dramadies. I’m a real girly girl when it comes to my choice of movies! But this was so heavy and dramatic that I really struggled to enjoy it as a movie. But as a book I think it would be amazing and I’m keen to give it a try.

    • I’m not into films that are too thought proviking either. I’d rather read the book and get my head around it first. With the book, just make sure you keep going through the start – it’s a little slow.

  3. Love the book (and the movie!). I do remember having a hard time in the beginning and may have peeked ahead a little, which encouraged me to keep going. By the time I finished it, I was wowed.

  4. I love the dreaminess of that first section–maybe because I saw the movie first, and it’s so gorgeous. The stars are gorgeous–the guy who plays Robbie broke my heart (and it didn’t hurt that I was seeing Mr. Tumnus).

  5. Pingback: Historical Fiction Giveaway Hop 24-30/8/12 « Sam Still Reading·

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