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Ian McEwan: Atonement

After his previous books and with all the acclaim and awards this novel received, I was expecting something special. I was disappointed. As it’s McEwan, it’s well written and a pretty good book but not as satisfying as its recent predecessors.

It starts off in the standard English country house drama mode (decaying country house = decaying country house family = decaying England). Waugh effectively killed this genre, Ishiguro gave it a decent burial and, in her novel The Last of the Country House Murders, Emma Tennant made sure it did not rise, Dracula-like, from the grave. Till now. Not only is it, at least the first half of this novel, your bog-standard country house novel, it even has some of the standard clichés associated with that genre. Firstly, there is the Mellors factor – the earthy servant having an affair with one of the young ladies of the house. Then, there is the absent father – is it work or is it someone/something else? The mother, of course, takes to bed frequently with headaches and the like. There is the well-loved servant and the dubious antecedents and, of course, the family’s guilty secret. You get the picture.

The country house plot is simple. It is 1935. Robbie Turner is the son of the cleaning lady. The family takes to him and finances him through Cambridge. Cecilia (Cee), the daughter of the house, is also up at Cambridge at the same time but they have little contact. Now both are back at the house, with Robbie planning to go medical school. However, he is in love with Cee and thinks that she is not interested in him. He inadvertently damages a rare vase in her presence and sets out to write a letter of apology. He writes two letters. The first is the one he intends to send but the second is the same with the addition of his desire to kiss her sweet cunt. He gives the letter (sealed in an envelope) to Briony, the thirteen-year old sister of Cee, to deliver. Briony reads the letter – he has, of course, put the wrong one in the envelope – and is shocked. She is even more shocked when she sees Robbie and Cee cuddling a bit later, taking it as an assault on his part. When her cousin, Lola, is assaulted soon after and she sees a man running away, she assumes that it is Robbie and reports the matter. He is arrested.

Cut to five years later. We learn that Robbie served three and a half years in prison for the assault and got out just a few days before the war. As a result, he joined up (as a private – anyone with a criminal assault cannot be an officer). Cecilia has remained loyal to him and, indeed, has refused to have anything whatsoever to do with any of her family, including, of course, Briony. She is now working as a nurse. We join Robbie in France, en route to Dunkirk as the British Expeditionary Force has been smashed. He has been wounded but, in an exciting narrative, makes it with two other soldiers to Dunkirk, though we do not learn whether they got a ship back to England. He has in his pocket a letter from Cecilia in which she says that Briony (now eighteen and also in nurse training) is ready to confess to her error.

Cut to Briony and her nurse training. McEwan gives us a fairly detailed and well written account of the nurse training, culminating in helping some of the Dunkirk evacuees, many of whom are in bad shape and some of whom die. On her day off, she goes to the wedding of Lola, who is marrying the rich Paul Marshall, who was present the day of the attack and who, Briony realizes, was the attacker. She says nothing but walks across London to her sister’s flat. Robbie, having escaped from Dunkirk, is there and they tell her that she must confess both to their parents and to the police.

The rest is a short coda set in 1999, where Briony now a successful novelist, explains how her last, post-mortem novel will expose Lola and Paul Marshall (still married and filthy rich). In other words, atonement.

The novel also reignited the accusation of McEwan’s being a plagiarist. As with The Cement Garden, he was accused of stealing, this time from Lucilla Andrews, a British writer of romantic novels, particularly when the film of this book was released. Not having read any of Ms Andrews’ works, I cannot comment. I felt that McEwan owed much to L P Hartley‘s The Go-Between. Both stories concern an innocent youth misunderstanding an adult sexual relationship. In both cases, the sexual relationship was between an upper class and lower class person, with potential dire consequences if discovered. Both stories were narrated by the child, now an elderly person, who had been scarred for life by discovery of the relationship and who will remain unmarried. Both were made into successful films and, in both films, the child as an older person was played by a Redgrave. There is also a similarly between the character of Briony and that of Juliet d’Orsey in Timothy Findley‘s The Wars.

Publishing history

First published 2001 by Jonathan Cape