There’s something beautiful and melancholy about war time romances and Ian McEwan’s Atonement doesn’t disappoint. Based on the lives of Robbie Turner, Cecilia Tallis and her younger sister Briony Tallis, the story’s conception finds itself set on a hot summer’s day in Surrey pre-WW2.
McEwan’s style has a way of leading readers into the narrative by focusing on the finer details of the incidents that occur on one particular day, and the tension it creates between childhood acquaintances Cecilia and Robbie. Having previously both studied at Cambridge University and yet barely acknowledging of each other’s presence, their relationship takes a new turn throughout the duration of a day.
However, they are not alone. Someone else is witnessing their behaviour and intercepting their private messages on a dramatic scale. Thirteen-year-old Briony’s young and boundless imagination is fuelled by what she sees, informing an incorrect analysis of the situation and changing lives because of it.
As such, Cecilia and Robbie are torn apart just as they realise their love for each other: Robbie is sent to prison following an accusation for a crime he didn’t commit. His plea of innocence falls on deaf ears as Briony provides an ‘ironclad’ witness statement from which there is no escape. The family disbands when Cecilia departs leaving a clear and distinct divide of sides.
After spending a couple of years in prison, Robbie is given a choice to continue his sentence or serve his country in the pending war. Desperately trying to save their love for each other through letter writing, Robbie and Cecilia try to reconnect. But with a love that’s only had a single day in the sun, they struggle to cope with the helplessness of their situation and Robbie has no choice but to proceed with war.
Move on a few years and Briony – now aged 18 – fully understands the consequences of her younger actions, and how her immature need for the excitement of a gripping story culminated in the destruction of lives. When the war ends, the results of her actions play out.
As readers, we see Briony live with the remorse of her actions at different stages of her life, dealing with the shadow of guilt for which she can only attempt to atone for. The novel has such a powerful and moving conclusion, it forces a mark on the mind. And if not the conclusion, the reality with which McEwan writes will surely make its impact.
Above all, and remaining long after the last page is read, is the lingering feeling all of us have experienced at some point – those flyaway thoughts of ‘what if things had turned out differently’, relentless in their tenacity and sometime need for atonement.
Book Review by Ammarah Cruz