Friday, January 16, 2009

Book Review Contest: Atonement (Reviewed by Daniel Ling)

I felt compelled to read this novel before its Oscar-nominated film adaptation, directed by Joe Wright and starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy, was released early this year. Although I found the film to be a faithful adaptation which drew me in with its deliriously romantic mood and heartbreakingly tragic tone, I was not spellbound by it in the way that the book captivated me with its engaging plot, its fully realized characters, and its probing moral inquiry. My second reading of Atonement this December has heightened my appreciation of Ian McEwan’s lush and vivid prose as well as his exploration of the ethical dilemma which lies at the heart of this brilliant novel.

McEwan’s novel poses this intriguing and unsettling question: If you realized that you have destroyed two people’s lives, how would you atone for this – and would they even forgive you, when all is said and done? This is the question which haunts Briony Tallis throughout her life, from her committing the above-mentioned crime at age 13 in 1935 until she finally achieves a sense of closure as an elderly woman in 1999.

The novel opens on a sweltering summer day in 1935, when Briony Tallis, her elder sister Cecilia, and their mother Emily are preparing for a dinner to celebrate the return of the girls’ brother Leon as well as the arrival of houseguests. These houseguests include Paul Marshall, Leon’s entrepreneur friend, the Tallis children’s cousins Lola and twins Pierrot and Jackson, and last but not least, Robbie Turner, the son of the Tallises’ cleaning lady. To celebrate her brother’s return, young Briony, a budding writer, has written a play, The Trials of Arabella, which unfortunately never gets performed due to rising tensions within the household. Emily is not far from the truth when she says that “hot weather encouraged loose morals among young people” (128). When Briony witnesses the curious scene in which Cecilia, in front of Robbie, dives into the deep fountain in the garden of their country home, Briony’s na├»ve and overactive imagination sets into motion a chain of events that will change all their lives forever. At the climax of that evening, one of the girls claims she has been assaulted, and Briony’s accusation results in an innocent man being sent to prison. Briony, however, later doubts the truth behind her own testimony, and her guilt leads her to spend the next sixty years trying to repair the damage she has done.

Atonement is divided into several parts. As shown above, the first part takes place at a manor house in England in 1935. The second part of the novel shifts its focus to Robbie, who becomes a soldier involved in the British Army’s retreat from Dunkirk in 1941. Meanwhile, Briony, as part of her atonement for her crime, becomes a nurse in London’s World War II military hospitals, with her exploits detailed in the third part of the novel. For the conclusion of his novel, McEwan fast-forwards the time to 1999, when elderly Briony’s birthday celebration serves also as a reunion of the Tallis clan.

It is in the conclusion of Atonement that we, as readers, come to realize that some of the events and the fate of certain characters described in the third part are not what had actually happened but are merely the creations of Briony’s imagination. Just as Briony questions the veracity of her childhood testimony, McEwan’s clever narrative style makes us question what is ‘real’ and what is ‘imagined’ in the novel.

Besides this theme of truth and lies, McEwan also handles well the theme raised by the novel’s title, the whole issue of atonement and how difficult it can be. We never really know if Robbie and Cecilia actually forgive Briony for destroying their lives and their chance of happiness together. Briony believes that she can use fiction to achieve absolution and to heal, since she had used fiction to commit her crime and to injure in the first place. Still, despite Briony’s noble intentions, I found myself asking, is it enough? To Briony, it is: “I like to think that it isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair” (371 – 72). I believe the novel proves that we need to consider the consequences of our own actions, how what we say or do can sometimes cause irreparable damage towards others.

All in all, Atonement is a superbly crafted novel which I highly recommend. It is one of the most reflective, compassionate, and satisfying novels I have read. Safe to say, I have nothing to atone for in recommending this book!

1 comment:

Alwyn said...

Nice review, Daniel. This is my first McEwan book. I especially loved the stukas.