Lisa's Reviews > Atonement

Atonement by Ian McEwan
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's review
Jul 21, 2008

it was amazing

Atonement, by Ian McEwan, is about a crime and its consequences over the course of six decades. It's the mid-thirties, and a precocious young girl stands on the threshold of adolescence with all its inner drama and self-absorption. On a languid summer day, Briony glimpses strange incidents and misunderstood intimacies between her 20-something sister and her friend, Robbie. Late that night, someone is attacked, and Briony’s overactive imagination and overindulged self-importance send an innocent man to prison, destroying two lives as his wrongful conviction breaks up a love affair just as it’s begun.

Those events make up only a portion of Atonement: the rest is the aftermath. Five years farther down the path to adulthood, Briony realizes what she’s done and gives up college to become a nurse tending soldiers wounded in WWII to atone for the damage she caused as a child. There's also a long, intense section following Robbie's tour of duty in France — he joins the army because anything, including war, is better than the "daily stupidity" and claustrophobia of prison. Briony's real atonement, however, turns out to be not so much the stint with nursing — it comes decades later and I won’t say how because that would ruin McEwan’s surprising if somewhat contrived ending.

Atonement is a compelling story and fantastic book, complex and beautifully written, with a psychological acuity to which few living novelists can lay claim. In the first section, the author captures with such clarity the child's emotions and motives and her muddled understanding of adults' complex emotional lives. That first section pulses with heat and light; the descriptions are lush, unexpected, beautiful. Later the writing becomes more gritty (what with the war) but no less amazing. Throughout the novel, McEwan's prose is vibrant, precise, wrenching and intense.

To sum up: The movie was good, the book is great.
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Steve Great review, Lisa -- beautifully written and very observant. I'm a big fan of McEwan's prose, too.

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