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.
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.