Book Review

 

Atonement book cover

Atonement

Author: Ian McEwan
Publisher: Knopf
Page Count: 351 (hardcover)

By Lynne DeMichele

(UMCom) -- You have to like 13-year-old Briony Tallis. She vibrates with creative enthusiasm and a hungry imagination that takes her ever into new territory. In the midst of her messy, slightly odd family she orders her room, her miniature farm and the dramatic stories she writes with a touching self-confidence. The youngest of a privileged English family, Briony is "a quiet, intense little girl who live(s) in her thoughts." Her thoughts and stories are peopled with heroes, villains and romantic adventure.

The idyll of Tallis family life abruptly begins to unravel one summer evening when circumstance sends Briony a villain. Her imagination leads her to make an accusation. With childish assurance, she believes herself to be an instrument of moral righteousness, insisting, "I saw him!" This action triggers a ripple of events leaving the whole family, including the handsome son of a servant, Robbie, badly scarred and estranged from one another. "How easily that unthinking family love was forgotten." (p. 330)

The idyll of Tallis family life abruptly begins to unravel one summer evening when circumstance sends Briony a villain. … With childish assurance, she believes herself to be an instrument of moral righteousness, insisting, "I saw him!"
Set in 1935, Part One of the book establishes "the crime," for which the whole Tallis family is blindly complicit in some way and suffering from it -- but separately. Part Two jumps ahead five years as the European family of nations is unraveling in the Great War. We follow an embittered Robbie Turner and two fellow soldiers, hungry and trekking their way out of the battered French countryside just ahead of the advancing German army. The sight of a severed child’s limb in a tree testifies to the terrible product of war, a death of innocence. At the same time, it reflects a more personal loss of innocence in each of the main characters. It is a scene of relentless sin and destruction and brings with it a new level of anguish for Robbie.

Part Three is a parallel focus on the Tallis sisters, Briony and her older sister Cecelia, now serving as nurses in besieged London. The young women live in their own lonely purgatories as they face the physical and emotional casualties of the war. Cecelia, jaded by the event five years earlier, longs for her lover Robbie. For Briony, now 18, the nun-like life of service she has chosen is a kind of self-imposed penance. "How guilt refined the methods of self-torture, threading the beads of detail into an eternal loop, a rosary to be fingered for a lifetime." (p. 162) She allows herself the distraction of making up stories about her patients and sharing with them their pain-induced fantasies. It was the only way she could escape, for a time, a compounding sense of guilt.

After comprehending the damage done by her childhood "lie," the long-deferred atonement is at last addressed by Briony. Believing she was beyond any hope of forgiveness, she nevertheless takes action in an effort to make things right.

In a kind of epilogue, Briony, now old and at the end of a successful writing career, speaks in her own voice. With her, we discover the irony of the impending ruin of her once agile mind - a fate from which there is no chance of escape. In a tour de force ending, the final scene reveals the nature of Briony Tallis’s true atonement. It is satisfying but a hard-punch of an ending.

Ian McEwan’s prose is lush and deeply layered with images and meaning. It seems to come from another literary age when the act of reading a novel was something one approached both intellectually and emotionally at full attention
Ian McEwan’s prose is lush and deeply layered with images and meaning. It seems to come from another literary age when the act of reading a novel was something one approached both intellectually and emotionally at full attention. This is not a beach book. Once the colors of the opening scene began to pulse and the characters began to engage one another, I was hooked and quickly gave in to the pull of the story line. It is, at the same time, delicious and disturbing.

To Christians the term "atonement" refers to a reconciliation of God and humankind brought about through Jesus’ life and sacrificial death. Although without reference to God or Jesus, the book’s story offers important and affecting spiritual lessons. Thoughtful readers of this novel can’t escape realizing that each of us has something to atone for. It nudges us to revisit some of our old choices and actions along in light of their impact on others clarified, now, by distance.

Atonement was selected as a best book of the year by most major publications in the U.S.: The New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and others. Notably, it was also a Booker Prize finalist in the U.K. The novel offers a very human story superbly told, and a level of psychological and spiritual insight far above that of most contemporary fiction.

Lynne DeMichele is a professional writer, editor and former director of communications for the Indiana Area United Methodist Church.

Please be aware that when you purchase a copy of this book through UMC.org, you are directly supporting this ministry.



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