I last read this book just after it was published in paperback. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize but did not repeat the success of McEwan’s 1998 winner “Amsterdam” (weirdly my least favourite of his books). I first discovered this writer when I was 19 and became completely blown away by his first two collections of short stories and the dark, disturbing “Cement Garden”- all three works were like nothing I had read before. He didn’t really knock me sideways again until 1996’s “The Innocent” and then in 1998 came what I had always considered his finest work “Enduring Love” (blown away is certainly appropriate for this, if you have read the book you will know what I mean!). But now, having re-read “Atonement” I think a change of opinion might very well be at hand. I think that this could very well be his masterpiece and certainly deserves its place in my 100 Essential Books List.
“I love England in a heatwave. It’s a different country. All the rules change.”
These are the words of Leon who has returned to his parents’ house in the sweltering summer of 1935. His older sister Cecilia is embarking upon a flirtation with housekeeper’s son and fellow Cambridge graduate, Robbie, who is taking a break in his academic career by helping out in the garden. Leon’s younger sister, thirteen year old Briony, a fledgling writer, is organising a play for his return involving cousins who are unhappily staying with them whilst their parents’ marriage falls apart.
Briony witnesses a bizarre incident by the fountain involving Robbie and Cecilia causing her to question her role as the baby of the family as she begins the inevitable shift towards adulthood. Briony’s sense of the dramatic, her feelings for Robbie and her determination to interfere in situations she doesn’t quite understand has dire consequences for the young lovers.
The first section simmers with an intense sense of foreboding and menace against the faded grandeur of the house and the Tallis family’s inept parents. The second section moves on to 1940 and the evacuation at Dunkirk and is visceral, even more intense and horrifying as a large-scale battle for survival takes place. This is an eye-opening section which challenges what we think we know about Dunkirk. There’s no relief in the intensity of the third section as a guilt-ridden eighteen year old Briony is working as a trainee nurse in a London hospital where many of the injured from Dunkirk are turning up with horrific injuries. I had to keep reminding myself to breathe re-reading this, such is the strength of McEwan’s writing.
There is a real feeling for the time in all sections. There’s striking contrast between the languid summer of 1935, imbued with the sense that things will soon be changing for the characters and the world they live in. We are plunged into the second and third sections facing the horrors of war both from those directly involved and particularly those trying to pick up the pieces. These sections are written with a brutal honesty which contrasts greatly with the life-changing lies of the heatwave summer.
The characterisation is rich and deep. The character’s actions are unpredictable and yet totally believable and understandable. There’s a short fourth section set in 1999 at the end, which I actually had forgotten about but which is beautifully and painfully written and ties enough loose ends to be completely satisfying.
I was expecting to enjoy this book on a re-read but not to change my opinion of it being a very good book. Well, it is more than that. It is a masterpiece – a twenty-first century modern classic. I can see I’m going to have to re-read more McEwan this year to see if others get better on a second read and whether “Enduring Love” can reclaim my “Best of the author” title. There are also a couple I have not yet got round to reading. But first I’m off to rewatch the film…………….
Atonement was published in the UK by Vintage in 2001