By complete coincidence, a large number of the books that I read in the summer of 2005 were stories about love in a time of war. Atonement by Ian McEwan, is the fourth and final in a series of book reviews on that theme (the first three were Antanas Sileika’s Woman in Bronze, Frances Itani’s Deafening and Beth Gutcheon’s Leeway Cottage). Atonement was also my favourite of the lot, and easily earned itself a place on my thus-far unwritten list of favourite books.

Atonement by Ian McEwanAtonement by Ian McEwan

This haunting story beings as a 13 year-old girl witnesses, from a great distance (both literal and metaphorical), a sexually-charged confrontation between her older sister and the son of her family’s gardener. Briony completely misunderstands both the context and the implications of this confrontation — a misunderstanding which sets into motion a chain of events that will ruin several lives, and leave Briony with a life-long need to atone — a need which she may never be able to fulfill.

Shortly after the incident that set this narrative into motion, England is drawn into the Second World War. And part of the fallout of Briony’s crime is that all three of the story’s protagonists become deeply embroiled in the war effort — one to earn back the right to live his life, one to fill an unnecessary and tragic void, and the third as part of her search for forgiveness. The story is told from all three perspectives, offering the reader a unique perspective but also, inevitably, betraying Briony’s fervent desire to rewrite the story from the beginning, and to undo the damage she has done.

One of the most remarkable qualities of Atonement, the decision that the elevates it from the ranks of other moving stories and puts it in the realm of something quite spectacular, is the way that McEwan employs an unusual narrative structure — a narrative structure that becomes a vital component of the narrative itself. He embeds in his story an author-character whose role as a writer is absolutely crucial to the way that the story unfolds, as well as the framework through which it is told. The text’s seemingly ever-changing perspective becomes unified through the framework of Briony as the final authority — the final storyteller. Through Briony’s vision, the story maintains a dynamic, almost magical metatextual awareness of the relationship between storyteller and reader — a relationship that becomes uniquely interactive in the final, heartbreaking moments of the book.

From the archives, written August 6th, 2005.

Brief thoughts on the film adaptation of Atonement, written June 24th, 2010: In 2007, two years after this review was originally written, a film adaptation of Atonment was released. It was well received (earning both rave reviews and an impressive six Oscar nominations). I watched it on DVD shortly last year and found it to be quite a good adaptation of the story, and a lovely film in its own right. But ultimately, the book remains superior: what was so sublime about Atonement was hidden in the interplay between the author, protagonist and reader. The act of writing itself, and the process of reading what has been written, are inherent and intrinsic to what is most powerful about the story. Remove the act of reading and it becomes a strong, successful film about a writer… but it loses much of the genius that ultimately made me love this book so much.

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