2017 was the summer of Dunkirk, seriously. I saw the movie in theaters twice (I firmly believe it’s one of the best movies ever made. I will talk about why for hours), I read Atonement which has important plot points and scenes based in Dunkirk and around the entire ordeal, and I got engaged on a beach…after seven years of dating, I’d call that my own personal Dunkirk.
I loved Atonement, and thank god I did because I have a quote from the book tattooed on my right inside forearm. And the reason why this book is extra shameful for me is that I got that tattoo years ago before I even read the entire book. I read just far enough to find a cool quote about writing and then was like, “THAT’LL DO!” But I did love the movie, and I’m really happy that I enjoyed the book just as much. It was beautifully written, totally gut-wrenching, and thoroughly entertaining. And man, Briony is quite the character. This was the perfect beach read (pun intended).
The book is broken into various parts stretching over the decades from 1935 to 1999. In its simplest form, I would call Atonement a historical fiction family drama about an affluent family who was ripped apart by war and internal issues and betrayals. It focuses in on a couple family members, mostly Briony Tallis and family friend Robbie Turner. When the book opens, Briony is just a highly imaginative and selfish child. Her jealousy and selfishness are not unusual for young people her age, but she allows them to control her and push her to make one horrible decision that basically tears their family apart. She accuses Robbie of a horrible act that, when she is honest with herself, she has absolutely no idea if he actually committed or not. In fact, pretty quickly after the accusations fly she begins to second guess herself and suss out the actual turn of events. This accusation ruins Robbie’s life, her big sister’s life, the life of her cousin, the lives of her parents, the life of Robbie’s mother, and her own to an extent.
The guilt follows Briony her whole life and manifests itself in different ways. She becomes a nurse during WWII instead of attending Cambridge. She avoids making amends with her sister until it’s too late. She becomes a successful author with (at the end) a loving family around her, but she’s also sitting on a dark secret that could take down a powerful group of people. She does devise a way to set the record straight and defend Robbie’s name, but due to complications this will not be done in her actual lifetime.
For Robbie and Cecilia Tallis (Briony’s older sister), their lives are shattered as much by Briony’s actions as by the devastating war. Dunkirk and the London Blitz feature prominently in their lives, as does their separation and the struggle with the family. What should have been a sweet and passionate romance is almost immediately twisted into a tragedy before it could even begin.
Enter my own shameless engagement…
My now fiance surprised the shit out of me in Cape May this past summer with the EXACT ring I wanted after I made several pointed comments (and passive aggressive jabs and straight forward rants etc etc) about finally getting engaged. He had one of our best friends take pictures of us on the beach for his mom, who is very obsessed with beach pictures, and while that was happening he knelt down in jellyfish infested waters and popped the question. I was very very surprised, despite my pushing for it to actually happen. We’re getting married on 11/02/18!
Back to Atonement, I don’t want to give away much of the plot because there are some interesting twists that make it a lot of fun to read, but if you’ve seen the popular 2007 film you already know all the details. I loved most aspects of this book. The character work is masterful, and perhaps the strongest element, but his attention to historical detail was also really amazing. The world McEwan created was very real, and I was impressed with how well he crafted the contrast of before the war and betrayal and after. The beginning of the book felt warm, small, secure. The rest of the book was cold, anxious, and uncertain. His writing was my favorite of all, however.
It’s hard for me to write about McEwan’s writing because I was so blown away by it. This is the only work of his I’ve read, though I’ll absolutely be picking up more in the future. I found his style both simple and profound. He treats one moment with a thousand colors, and in larger scenes when lots of chaos is raging, he focuses in on small details that really shape character and narrative. The way he wrote Robbie’s experiences in Dunkirk was breathtaking and horrific, but also beautiful. He treats Bryony’s internal struggle the same.
I think this book, much like I Capture the Castle and Little Women, will be a book I return to year after year. There is so much to unpack here that I can’t even begin to scratch at after just one read. I would recommend this book to pretty much everyone! Have you read any other McEwan novels? What should I read next?