I hadn’t heard of Ian McEwan until I decided to read Atonement for the Guardian challenge, and I wasn’t sure what to expect.
The arrival of her brother Leon has the over-imaginative Briony Tallis in a tizzy, and when she witnesses some intimate exchanges between her sister Cecilia and the gardener’s son Robbie Turner, she assumes that he is an oversexed monster. So when her cousin Lola is raped later that night, she accuses Robbie of the crime, resulting in his being sent to prison. Three years later, we meet Robbie at the warfront, wounded but desperate to return to Cecilia, and Briony who regrets her false accusations and wants to atone for them.
To tell you the truth, I found the first half of the book, set in the Tallis household, tedious. I did not care for any of the characters, the prose was long-winding at times, and I found it difficult to get through. I was totally disgusted by Briony, though; the vindictiveness she showed in relying on inaccuracies of her mind to send the innocent Robbie to prison was shocking.
But the book picked up in the second half. McEwan’s descriptions of the retreat were heartrending and evocative. I felt sympathy towards Robbie and his love for Cecilia, and his desperation to be reunited with her, which keeps him going despite his grievous injuries. Cecilia’s words “I’ll wait for you. Come back” are like a haunting refrain throughout the book. The war, and its effects on people, are also written about quite evocatively, and you feel for the soldiers. The ending was quite a surprise, and turned the story around. But honestly, I had a lot of trouble getting through the book; it was too wordy and long-winding for my taste, and I barely finished it. I actually appreciated it more after watching the movie; James McAvoy and Kiera Knightley pitched in with inspired performances.