Atonement (2001) is quite clearly McEwan’s masterpiece. Although it is difficult to pin-point why this is exactly, it must be the combination of a fluid and coherent writing style with an insightful portrayal of character and events. It throws together such diverse topics as love and war with truth and illusion, allowing the reader to view their world in a new light. The variety of genres the novel covers and the focus it puts upon the plight of the individual makes it the perfect read for all.
As briefly as possible, Atonement is a novel about the repercussions of a false accusation by a self-centred and lonely child, Briony Tallis. The novel does not just centre on the effect her choice had on the accused, Robbie Turner, but everyone connected with her family, including, most poignantly, herself. Her sister Cecilia, eldest daughter of the wealthy middle class Tallis family, realises her love for Robbie, the charwoman’s son, only hours before he is accused and eventually falsely convicted of raping Briony’s cousin, Lola. This is set against the backdrop of World War Two which divides the lovers from each other and hinders Briony’s quest for atonement. It is left to reader to decide whether her penance is sufficient.
Atonement is essentially a disturbing novel. The rigid class boundaries of previous eras are held up for harsh scrutiny and essentially discredited. Robbie is still seen by the Tallis family as a working class outsider capable of criminality even though he has an education and intelligence well beyond them. Children are not represented as the wide-eyed innocents to be found in Victorian literature and are instead seen as malicious and selfish. The question of a child’s culpability is raised and this is particularly significant in a society which has witnessed horrific crimes by children such as the James Bulger case (1993). Indeed, violence is a key feature of the text. The horrors of war are depicted with almost repulsive attention to detail. The description of a dismembered leg in a tree is an image which definitely stays with you for a while.
However, I found the most distressing part of the novel to be the blurred lines between fiction and reality which McEwan creates. Facts that the reader was led to believe are completely decimated and they are left with a strong sense of bewilderment. If the narrator is no longer to be trusted, the reader may ask, who is a reliable source? This is compounded by the shock of the ending which cements McEwan as a master of narrative. I won’t ruin it for you, but if you don’t cry, I judge you.
It may take a couple of readings to get your head around the distortions between fiction and reality but it is well worth the effort. With every new reading, I found yet another layer McEwan had produced, whether it was a letter criticising his own work (a very brave thing for a novelist to do) or the symbolism of Briony’s play, The Trials of Arabella. Ultimately though, Atonement is a novel about empathising with human experience and that is exactly why it has universal appeal.