Atonement‘s reputation precedes it, by just about any measure. It was the inspiration for a superb film of the same name, of course, but beyond that, Atonement tops numerous critical lists, up to and including several compilations of the best books of the 20th century. So, although I’d seen the film (and as such, knew the basic story beats), I can’t say I wasn’t a little intimidated by this book.
And I shouldn’t have been. Atonement is many things – beautifully written, exquisitely crafted, emotionally rich, incredibly thoughtful, fascinatingly complex, wonderfully plotted – but it’s never a forbidding read. Indeed, it’s remarkably accessible, but it’s also a book that unfolds depths as you go through it and realize just how carefully it’s all put together, just how many layers of narration, bias, and perception McEwan has built into every single word.
The plot is best left vague, for many reasons; suffice to say it’s about a young girl who makes a terrible mistake due to the best intentions but the limited knowledge of childhood. What that mistake is, and how it ripples outward, is best left to uncover as you read the book. It’s enough for now to say that the book opens in the buildup to World War II, and by the time it’s complete, we’ve followed a soldier on the Dunkirk retreat, traveled through the hospitals dealing with the slaughtered men who fought in the war, and end in a surprisingly reflective place that pulls everything together in some ways and raises even more questions in other. In other words, this is a surprisingly large-scoped book, despite its relatively brief page count and quick reading time.
Much of that scope, though, can be attributed to McEwan’s astonishing, intricate prose, which glides through narrators effortlessly, spans time like no one’s business, creates worlds defined by the perception of our narrators, and creates a whole mosaic from a slew of tiny pieces. The writing here is truly beautiful, and it’s to McEwan’s credit that it handles every section – a bucolic family estate, the horrors of war, the tension of a hospital, and more – with every bit the skill as the others.
It also helps, of course, that Atonement is so thematically rich. As the title suggests, this is a novel about guilt and forgiveness, but it’s also a novel about the power of storytelling, and the way in which we redefine ourselves both for others and for ourselves. It’s about coming of age, and realizing how childhood naiveté can be more than innocence – it can be dangerous without context and help. It’s about the horrors of war, and what it does to people who are unprepared for them. It’s about the way emotions can betray us without us even realizing it, and can cause us to do things that we don’t even understand ourselves. And it does all this while spinning a fantastic story, one that’s constantly engaging, compulsively readable, and gripping all the way until the end.
If it feels like I’m being vague about Atonement, I apologize, but it’s a book where so much of the joy comes from watching the story slowly evolve in front of you, and one where much of the pleasure comes from discussing and thinking about all of the questions it raises and leaves you wanting. But the short version is, it’s an astonishing, beautiful, moving read, one that’s every bit as good as its reputation and then some. I was blown away by it, and truly loved it, both on a technical level and a story level. And if you, like me, are worried by its reputation, don’t be; this is an accessible book, a rich book, and a rewarding book, and never so self-consciously intelligent that it becomes a chore to read. Indeed, if anything, you’re going to have problems stopping it once you’ve started.