The title ‘Atonement‘ and the back cover of the 2001 Ian McEwan book suggests an emotional journey, a wrenching coming-of-age tale, that starts from an incident and extends well beyond it in real life ramifications and in memory.
Widely regarded as one of Ian McEwan’s best works, it was shortlisted for the 2001 Booker Prize for fiction. In 2007, the book was adapted into a BAFTA and Academy Award-winning film of the same title.
A few pages into the book and I knew this was not going to be an ordinary, swift read. The language is lyrical so that to roll over the words quickly was to let go of mini impressions that make up the larger picture. There are tiny flickers of emotions that fit the pieces of the puzzle of how our minds perceive things.
Ian McEwan’s exquisite book starts in pre war England, when war is still far from public imagination. In an idyllic country house, the lives of the people living therein and visiting are about to change irrevocably through a short, nearly invisible incident; invisible and unnoticed by everyone except the budding 13 year old writer whose verdurous imagination leads her to think of things beyond her understanding.
Briony, the youngest in the household or nearly so, if we discount her cousins, the twins, and yet the pivotal figure whose (mis) understanding of the events that unfold before her lead her to act in ways that has a lasting impact on the people she loves. Years later, she comes to a complete realisation of her actions and her suppositions and sets out to put things right.
In Briony’s atonement, fate plays a part and the journey that begins in a country house pans across the second world war, bringing the horrors of the war to the reader, in stark contrast with the placid gardens of her house.
The story begins in England, in 1935. The events of one day in summer are set out. The cast comprises of Briony, the precocious 13 year old, who is on the threshold of adulthood and literary revelation, or so she feels. Her elder sister, Cecilia is home after graduation, soaking in the glorious summer heat and wondering what to do with her life. On the same estate is Robbie, recently graduated, like Cecilia and on the cusp of an exciting life ahead that is full of possibilities. Leon, the eldest son of the household is awaited eagerly by all that evening. He is to be accompanied by the business tycoon, Paul Marshall. To the household are added the unfortunate and confused nine year old twins and their scheming, attention-seeking older sister, Lola; escaping a broken home and sent to the country to find love and care. The father, Leon’s, Cecilia’s and Briony’s, is large in his absence and we come to know of him through his wife, Emily, who nurses her migraine and her thoughts in private; in darkened rooms, with a heightened sense of understanding and prescience.
The country house sees talent, love, passion, intrigue, resignation in equal measures in the span of a day. The day unfolds through different eyes. Every character is wrapped in his/her world, musing, wondering and the stream of consciousness narrative reminds me of ‘The Lighthouse’ by Virginia Woolf. Briony, who till now has been penning down tales of love reunited, of valour and of an ideal world, stumbles upon the Stream of Consciousness way of narrative through her partial witnessing of the pivotal incidents of the day. The writer in her muses on this with a new set of eyes.
There is an undercurrent of joy in writing that Briony is aware of; she knows what stories do to her.
” ...writing stories not only involved secrecy, it also gave her all the pleasures of miniaturization. A world could be made in five pages and one that was more pleasing than a model farm. The childhood of a spoiler prince could be framed within half a page, a moonlit dash through sleepy villages was one rhythmically emphatic sentence, falling in love could be achieved in a single word-a glance. The pages of a recently finished story seemed to vibrate in her hand with all the life they contained.”
Briony is intense, with a depth of feeling that clarifies itself in her writings. She wonders,
“Was everyone really as alive as she was?… everyones’s thoughts striving in equal importance and everyone’s claim in life as intense, and everyone thinking they were unique, when no one was. One could drown in irrelevance.”
This thought process then is in some measure a portent of what is to come. Everyone is at the center of his/her universe, and yet on the whole they are like anyone else, everyone else and their lives, the entire arc of their struggle and redemption pale into insignificance or irrelevance in the bigger picture; when a measure of a life well lived is taken; when Briony in her old age is surrounded by family and the entire lifetimes are rattled off in a matter of sentences.
Part of the reason for Briony’s confusion on the fateful day is the inability to reconcile her feelings. She struggles with a ‘chaotic swarm of impressions’, the complexity of which convinces her that she is entering an ‘arena of adult emotion.’ Briony is a writer, first and foremost and she longs to set down the emotions on paper.
“What she wanted was to be lost to the unfolding of an irresistible idea, to see the black thread spooling out from the end of her scratchy silver nib and coiling into words.”
We understand, then, as to what prompted Briony to act the way she did. Emily, Briony’s mother, has a depth of understanding in the workings of the human mind. Her stoicism and acceptance of her husband’s absence, literally and figuratively and her knowledge of old age, when he would return to her for a companionable life is striking. All the more striking is her very real weakness when it comes to Lola and her vulnerability. Emily is shrewd enough to see her sister Hermione in Lola and that prevents her from complete love and attention towards her sister’s children. Emily as a mother, for that is what she is now, is wondrous. She thinks of Leon’s ‘diminishing prospects’ with a sense of clarity. Of Cecilia, Emily is dismayed that she is disappointed with her academic performance. Emily muses that Cecilia
“had no job or skill and still had a husband to find and motherhood to confront.”
Thinking about Briony, Emily regrets the
“passing of an age of eloquence.”
Already, Emily knows that her youngest is at the threshold of adulthood, struggling out of the mould of innocent, garrulous childhood. And yet, for all her understanding, Emily bows down to her prejudices when she is at the helm of decisions regarding the indictment of someone she has known for long years.
The fateful day full of unexpected events is spent, and for everyone involved, their lives change forever. The lull, the idyllic gives way to the ugly and the unexpected and soon the story moves to the battlefields of the second world war and to the weary trudge of the retreating British army through the French countryside. The horrors of the war as seen from a soldier’s eyes are presented; the disillusionment and the weariness that hides the vestiges of strength and courage. Death and terror, through Stuka attacks are so minutely described that I can visualise them to the last detail and feel the terror.
Superimposed on the war is love. War seems all encompassing; with wide swathes it takes in everything, destroying all in its wake. Love, private, ‘a lonely preoccupation’, flickers tentatively, feeding on memories and little stolen encounters, on words and on simple phrases that were uttered, on the dreams of a future and the urgency of love to uphold itself, high above the mundane. There is a tender pain of reunions, of things that might be and the wonder if the ideals of love would supercede the bleak realism of war and of life itself.
In the next part of the book, we come back to Briony’s viewpoint and her life choices. She has enrolled to be a nurse, to contribute to the war effort and to atone for her actions that fateful day when everything changed as per her thoughts and understanding. Her experiences with the sick and the dying are visceral and it shows another side of the war.
The book ends in present day England. The past is seen through Briony’s eyes, her relatives making up the carousel; the here-and-now described in delicate detail-the ordinary detail that makes up our lives; the near future, the projected and the expected turn of events described with a sense of resignation and stoicism to the wheel of existence. What captures us here are the stories within the story, the long awaited screening of Arabella, an allusion to other works of Briony and her masterpiece that has been written but that needs an opportune time for publication.
Atonement is a brilliant narrative of love, war, life. It is characterized by different hues and imagery that is both abstract and stark.