Book Reviews

Review: Atonement by Ian McEwan

How far can the consequences of a stubborn lie reach?

(Image: Julia Dath)

When I decide something’s not for me, it’s pretty hard to change my mind. I hate cooked onions. Worms creep see out. My biggest stance for a long time was that I found all museums to be boring. Take, for example, my family’s infamous trip to the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C. during my middle school years.

At this point, I was declaring not to like museums merely as a matter of principle. When I was eight or nine, I called one museum boring and everyone in my family started to joke about it. From then on, I stuck to my anti-museum stance.

It wasn’t an opinion attached to any sort of recent evidence, but merely a little kid refusing to admit that they were wrong. Anyway, on this particular trip, thirteen year old me decided to stand my ground, and I refused to go into the Hirshhorn museum, stating that it was going to be so boring. Maybe I thought this meant we’d ditch the museums and go to an amusement park instead, or that my parents would take us to our favorite ice cream place in DC in lieu of browsing art and history. I was told that if I didn’t want to go inside, I could sit on a bench at the entrance, alone, whilst everyone else enjoyed themselves.

And I did just that. I parked myself in the outdoors and read Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater. Maybe the rest of my family was interacting with true fine art and culture, but at thirteen nothingnesses is more sophisticated and enticing than a werewolf romance novel.

Thirteen year olds are perennially stubborn. At that time in life, nothing is worse than being wrong because even just existing feels kind of embarrassing. When I started Ian McEwan’s Atonement, I was reminded just how stubborn those new teens could be.

In Atonement, thirteen year old Briony Tallis is wedged between a lie and youthful pride. She sees—or at least thinks she sees—an inappropriate exchange between her older sister Cecilia and the family friend Robbie Turner. Briony spins her own fantasy of Robbie’s sexual obsessions, and later that night accuses him of a sexual assault that she is not confident he is the perpetrator of.

The novel is split into three main parts, with part one covering in deep detail every single event that happened on the day of Briony’s accusation. We see Briony finishing her play, “The Trials of Arabella”, and the saga of rehearsing it with her cousins before cancelling the production. We watch Cecilia chat with her brother Leon and his friend Paul Marshall, mother Emily Tallis lament over the escapades of her sister Hermione, and Robbie Turner struggle to write an honest letter to Cecilia.

Ian McEwan gives us key scenes from multiple shots. The most fundamental moments of this day transpire between Cecilia and Robbie with Briony as unwanted witness. While the adults engage in blooming Romance, Briony has manufactured a different story entirely. McEwan describes a moment from Robbie’s point of view with adoration and infatuation, and then sweeps into Briony’s perspective to warp and misconstrue the same picture.

As readers, we’re distant enough from the story to be extremely frustrated with Briony. It would be so simple for her to admit that she lied about seeing Robbie commit the crime. Rectifying the situation seems so nearly in grasp, if only Briony could swallow her pride and be honest.

But what is the price of swallowing your pride? My Hirshhorn museum stubbornness was a small thing and didn’t directly cause anyone harm. Still, I had this debilitating feeling like admitting my wrongs was the worst thing in the world and I held onto the lie that I hated museums not only for that day, but for years to come. Now, I can take the ribbing from my siblings when I admit I was perhaps being a bit dramatic back in the day.

The situation in Atonement comes with much more severity. Why would a character hold onto the truth for so long knowing the consequences of such a severe accusation? Here, we have a young character raised with a minuscule understanding of consequence. Briony’s lie is told in the summer of 1935, before conversations of war have begun to touch her wealthy and idyllic childhood in the English countryside. She is immersed in a life of privilege and has a nurtured knack for storytelling. Painting Robbie as a criminal was like painting a story that she did not yet understand the repercussions of.

This accusation follows Robbie, Cecilia, and Briony for years to come. As World War II encapsulates Britain, Robbie serves in the army, and Cecilia sides with Robbie by cutting off all contact with here family and becoming a nurse. An adult Briony is then struck with the desire to, for a lack of a better word, atone for her past actions. It isn’t until she is training to become a nurse herself that Briony begins to understand the adult scope of her actions. The latter half of Atonement follows Robbie, Cecilia, and Briony as they wade through the fallout of Briony’s lie.

McEwan’s entire story centralizes Briony in this crime because she told the lie, and the other main characters filter their frustration through the lens of blaming Briony. And while Briony’s lie created negative consequences, the true criminal of the story is the man who committed the crime that Robbie is blamed for. Cecilia and Robbie contribute to Briony centralizing herself when they thrust the majority of their active blame her way. Yes, the thirteen year old should’ve told the truth about what she saw, but the man who committed sexual assault is the real center of this story.

Major Atonement spoilers from this point on!

So why isn’t this book a vindication of the central criminal? The end of the story reveals that Briony has written this book, meaning that her influence is all over the pages and the blame. While the man who committed the sexual assault is the story’s villain, it is written as though Briony has committed the greatest crime with her lie. What lie would there be to tell if there had been no epicenter?

There’s an inevitable word that comes to the mind of every reader whilst paging through Atonement: forgiveness. Does a woman who did something horrible as a child deserve forgiveness? Who has the right to offer up forgiveness in this situation? Every character in Atonement must contend with how and when they give and receive forgiveness. And, regardless of what is decided, no amount of shared words can undo the choice that changed lives forever.

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