30 May 2010


Thirteen year old Briony Tallis is an aspiring writer--she has big plans for the play she has written that will be staged in honor of her older brother's visit home. Her older sister Cecilia is also busy ensuring that the party for their brother goes as planned, but she is even more preoccupied with her conflicted feelings for the son of the family's long-term charwoman--Robbie Turner--whom she alternately adores and despises. However, nothing about that sultry summer day goes according to plan. When Briony witnesses an encounter between Robbie and Cecilia, her ever-inventive imagination--and perhaps some more nefarious motives--cause her to accuse Robbie of a horrible crime, an accusation that will have profound consequences for all involved, Briony included.

I have long wanted to read this novel, so when Rebel recommended it to me a couple of weeks ago on my villain post, I couldn't resist reading it as soon as possible. As with all of the recommendations I have received from my readers, I was not disappointed. I loved this novel! (Thanks so much, Rebel!) Rebel explained that it was a great historical fiction romance that was sad but not sappy, and I wholeheartedly concur.

Atonement is a fascinating novel on several levels. I love how complex Ian McEwan made all of his characters, especially the main three--Robbie, Cecilia, and Briony. Though sometimes these characters were hard to sympathize with, they were always real. I was particularly impressed with McEwan's skill in writing Briony, a character who could very easily be wholly despicable. I can't say I ever truly liked her, but she is far more interesting and three-dimensional than I had imagined and that made this novel far more unpredictable--and enjoyable--because of it. McEwan's eloquent and lyrical (but always effortless) style was also a huge plus for me. I liked the precise, lush historical details, as well. McEwan manages to capture the atmosphere of a troubled upper-middle class English home in 1935 and the horrors of WWII at Dunkirk and at British military hospitals. In fact, the war scenes make for some of the best military fiction I've read in awhile, though I know that's not the main focus of the story.

I also enjoyed the structure that McEwan employed in telling this story. I am a huge fan of experimental plots, especially of the multi POV and non-linear variety. The first part of the novel focuses on that fateful summer day in 1935 when Robbie, Cecilia, and Briony's world is forever changed. Each chapter tells the story in third person narration from a different character's point of view, jumping through time and often retelling scenes in which more (or conflicting) information is presented through that character's perspective. If you prefer linear plots, this technique may drive you crazy, but I enjoyed it immensely, both for the literary technique involved and for the realistic way in which McEwan shows how different people perceive the same event in very different ways. After the superb first half, I expected to be somewhat disappointed with the remainder of the novel, which follows the characters through 1940. Instead, the historical detail and the compelling plot still kept me riveted. I especially enjoyed the ending--set in 1999. In my mind, the entire time I was reading this novel, my inner cynic kept thinking that I didn't want the ending to be happy, because that would just almost be too much of a cop-out (and I hate happily ever after story endings. *glares into distance whilst emoting*) But, at the same time, my more dreamy, secretly optimistic inner self wanted things to somehow be all right in the end--but not happily ever after. I was pleased that McEwan found a clever way to do both in concluding this novel.

Atonement is a haunting tale that probes the power of fiction, imagination, guilt, and--yes--atonement. It is also a wonderfully-crafted literary historical novel and an enjoyable, non-melodramatic romance. (Yes, I am bragging on a romance novel that was not written in the 19th century. No, this is not a sign of the coming apocalypse. :P) Now I am determined to get my hands on the acclaimed film based on this novel.

P.S. I must note, there is some adult content in this novel. Not a lot--I have certainly seen much worse elsewhere-- but there is enough that I would rather post a warning for my younger readers. (I don't want your parents beating me over the head with a blunt instrument for not giving fair warning.)


Next Week: I know you hear this a lot from me, but I am not sure. I have been reviewing a lot of literary fiction lately, so I want to try some genre fiction. I have a YA novel I have been meaning to read, plus some horror, a Western, and some other assorted books, so we'll see what I find. :P


This Week In Literary History: *cue organ music*

26 May 1895: Bram Stoker's infamous vampire novel Dracula first goes on sale in London. Derided as trashy at the time, Dracula has gone on to become one of the all-time great horror novels (and one of my absolute favorites.) Dracula may not have been the first fictional vampire, but he was the first to capture the public's interest. I am a big fan of Dracula--he was #1 on my list of literary villains a couple of weeks ago. Forget about Eddie the glitter vamp! I'm Team Dracula, because real vampires don't sparkle. :D


  1. Yay! I'm so glad you liked it!

    I probably give out way too many suggestions...there are just so many good books!

    Although this was written recently, it reminded me of some of the early historical fiction.

  2. Dracula *is* the ultimate villain. :D

    I've heard of Atonement, and especially about Briony. I'll try and read it once finals are done.

  3. Rebel, Yes, I really did enjoy it. Thank you! You can never give out too many book suggestions! Atonement *is* reminiscent of an older style. I am not quite sure why, but it is.

    Scott: I had a feeling you'd like that Dracula trivia bit. :D I think you will like Atonement. Even though it is a romance, it is not a girly romance and it is so well-written. Tell me what you think of it when you read it. (And good luck with those pesky finals. They are afflicting everyone! ;-()

  4. I don't typically like romance novels, but if you thought this one was amazing, then it must have a good plot and a lack of cliche mushiness. :D I shall consider it for my summer reading list. *sticks on summer reading list, part II, what to read once I finish the other 20 must-reads*

  5. Feathery, I think you will like Atonement precisely for its lack of cliched mushiness! I am like you in that I usually don't like romances for this reason. In this book, the romance is more heartbreaking than anything--yet certainly not sappy--but the real focus, in many ways, is Briony: what she does, why she does it, and how she copes with what she's done. That gives it a unique twist.

    Your reading list sounds like mine . . . :D