Atonement by Ian McEwan is the polar opposite of a fast-paced Dan Brown potboiler. We don’t get dragged into a breathless, formulaic narrative that jumps from one famous city to another, with puzzle-solving heroes and crazed villains chasing each other.
What it offers is a seamless, measured storytelling that carefully develops vivid settings, well-defined characters and intricate relationships. Reading it doesn’t feel like a race to get to the ending but a leisurely journey that allows us to enjoy the beautiful prose.
In a lot of ways, it is a cheesy love story. One summer day in 1935, childhood friends Cecilia Tallis and Robbie Turner had an awkward conversation, broke a vase and got on each other’s nerves. Before the day was over, they were confessing romantic feelings for each other and making love in the library.
The witness to all these was Cecilia’s younger sister, 13-year-old Briony. A somber, introspective writer, Briony was too caught up with the mounting frustration of producing a play in honor of her brother’s homecoming. She was able to catch fragmented scenes of Cecilia and Robbie together, even intercepting a disastrous draft of his love letter, but ended up drawing painfully wrong conclusions. She sincerely believed that Robbie was a maniac preying on her sister.
Later that night, Briony was again a witness to another incident: her cousin being sexually assaulted. In her mind, the criminal could not be anyone but Robbie and it was enough to convict him.
Fast forward to five years later, the wrongfully accused Robbie Turner has served his time in prison and is now a soldier in World War II. Cecilia, now a nurse, faithfully writes letters to him and hasn’t spoken to her family since the trial.
Briony also pursued nursing in the hope that she could partly assuage her guilt by scrubbing hospital floors and cleaning bedpans. Her final act of contrition though was through what she does best: writing.
She realizes that it may never be enough to just conjure a happy ending for the two lovers from the tip of her pen. Forgiveness may prove to be elusive. Guilt may never be completely washed away. In the end, this is the reality she learns to live with.
At the very least, this is more than what you usually get from a cheesy love story.