So, to be honest this is one of my longest book reviews that I’ve written. I have strong feelings about the events in this book which is probably why the summary is one of the longest and why I’m glad it’s fiction. Atonement by Ian McEwan is a historical fiction and romance novel that takes place in the 1940s in a European country just before World War II starts, during WWII and years later. The novel begins with thirteen year old Briony Tallis who is described as imaginative and who has taken a real interest in writing. For her brother’s return home from university, she wrote a script or story titled, The Trials of Arabella, which she planned to perform “on stage” for her family. Briony knew that she couldn’t play all of the characters in the show alone and she also knew that her three cousins (her mother’s sister’s children) were coming sometime that day to stay with them for a while due their parents having some marital issues, so she planned to give them roles in the play and to tell them that there would be rehearsals so that it will be perfect for Leon when he gets back. The oldest cousin is fifteen year old Lola and the youngest two are twin boys named Jackson and Pierrot, nine years old. Lola seemed somewhat shy and was quiet while the boys were a bit more boisterous (as most boys are).
Briony tells them about her plans and because they don’t want to seem rude they agree to be in it. At the first rehearsal, Jackson and Pierrot are nervous and read their lines like robots causing Briony to have to stop to correct them on how to read their lines. Briony was a little shocked when Lola assumed that she’d play the role of Arabelle rather than Briony (something Briony agonized over before they arrived – she felt Lola would make a better Arabelle due to physical appearance, but Briony had sort of envisioned she’d play the lead role in her own work), but she didn’t argue and took place as director. This worked out well since the boys needed a lot of help reading lines with the right tone, mood and inflection as well as stage directions. Cecilia was in her early 20s and we find out she attended the same university as one of her childhood friends and the family’s servant’s son, Robbie Turner. The author makes it clear that these two are attracted to each other and trying to hide it from pretty much everyone; Robbie, Leon and Cecilia all used to play together when they were children. Since Leon was bringing a friend from school with him to stay for a while, Cecilia, Briony’s older sister, was asked to fill a family vase with fresh flowers and water then take it upstairs to the additional bedroom which used to belong to an aunt.
Cecilia mused over some of Robbie’s behavior and comments while at school and begins to feel as though Robbie is either testing her or disrespecting her or maybe both and because she couldn’t figure out which one it was she was frustrated. When she attempted to fill the large vase the first time she accidentally chipped the edge of the neck, so she had to use some glue and let the vase dry before she could fill it with water. Once the vase was dry, Cecilia filled it with flowers and carefully walked the vase outside to their fountain where she would fill it; however, on her way over to the fountain, Robbie Turner saw her and followed her to the fountain. While they thought nobody was looking they had a discussion about a few things and it was a pretty heated discussion because she was frustrated and confused. Afterwards, Robbie offers to help her fill the vase with water which she declines the first time; when he offers a second time, he grabs the opposite side of the vase neck to lift it towards the fountain spout, but as he was about to do that Cecilia abruptly pulls the vase away and the two pieces of the vase neck that she had glued back on, flew through the air and landed at the bottom of the fountain. Not very good luck and her father will not be pleased because his deceased brother was a veteran and received that vase from an important person during one the wars and gave it to him. Robbie apologizes for breaking the vase and prepares to get into the fountain to get the pieces for her so they can fill it with water then head inside to fix it, but before he was able to get into the fountain, Cee (her nickname) is already in her bra and panties getting into the fontain to get them herself. After she gets out, she dresses herself again with some difficulty due to being wet then she fills the vase with water and heads inside with the pieces so she can fix it. Robbie is left by the fountain astonished for a few minutes before leaving.
Since one of the twins was having to complete a chore for Betty, they were not able to hold rehearsals, so Briony observed the entire exchange between her sister and Robbie from an upstairs window in the house and based on what she saw, she believed that Robbie forced Cecilia to take of her clothing and get into the fountain. She thinks that Cecilia was too scared to not comply – so Briony conjures up a fairy tale surrounding this interaction that she doesn’t really know anything about. It almost consumes her thoughts because she pivoted from writing plays to writing novels; when they were finally able to rehearse – Briony leaves them rehearsing so she could think about what she saw and the story she would write about it and also cancelled the performance. Briony believed her suspicions were supported by a letter that Robbie asked Briony to deliver directly to Cecilia before the start of dinner. She agreed to take it to Cecilia, but she just couldn’t mind her own business so she ran just inside the house and stayed hidden in the lobby area so she could open and read the letter. When she watched Robbie and Cecilia in the back corner of the library before dinner and believed her sister was attacked. Cecilia figured out that Briony opened and read her letter – she was furious with her and it showed. It was a little tense at dinner, but Mr. Paul Marshall, Leon’s friend, didn’t seem to notice. However, Jackson and Pierrot decided to run away so dinner was cut short as the dinner party guests created search parties to go find them.
Emily, Leon, Cecilia and Briony’s mom, offered to stay home (or needed to) so Leon told her that she needed to call the police and she agreed; Cee, Leon and Paul left on horseback while Robbie left on foot looking for them. Lola ended up heading to an isolated part of the property; there is a small to medium size body of water on the property with an isolated mass of land in the middle called “the island” (if my memory is correct) to sulk, have a pity party and search for her brothers, but while she’s over there she is raped by a man she was unable to identify at the time it occurred. By the time Briony arrived on the island, the man’s back was turned and moving away from them so she didn’t get a good look at his face and didn’t really know who it was that hurt her; she sees Lola disheveled and confused – she was unable to answer questions, Briony assumed it was Robbie, asked Lola if it was Robbie, Lola asked if that it was who did that to her and Briony answered with yes even though neither girl could accurately identify the attacker. As Cecilia, Leon and Paul (who went in a different direction than the others) return without having seen or found them. Briony returns with Lola and tells everyone there that she was attacked by Robbie Turner. When all of this was happening, Robbie had not returned from searching yet and the police were called; the police interviewed Briony who provided a statement indicating what she told the group when they got back to the house. The police officer specifically asked her if she saw the attacker’s face and she lied saying she had.
When Robbie does show up at the house, he has both Jackson and Pierrot with him; everyone is safe and he’s the only one who found them. Unfortunately, Robbie is not treated to a hero’s welcome, but rather he was bombarded with accusations without substantial (material, physical) evidence other than a made up story of a delusional pre-teenage girl who lies. Cecilia believed Robbie was innocent and never abandoned him throughout the entire ordeal. Robbie, who had plans to attend medical school, was hauled off to jail and found guilty of the crime thanks to Briony’s in-person testimony in court. Robbie spent many years in jail and during that time, Cecilia left her parents’ house for good, studied to become a nurse and stopped all communication with her family. She also wrote Robbie letters which he responded to. It was not until Briony turned nineteen years old that she began to fully grasp or wrap her head around the severity of her thirteen year old self’s actions – lying and causing an innocent man to go to jail for a horrendous crime while also forgetting that the real criminal is still out there preying on young vulnerable girls like Lola was at fifteen and Briony could have been at thirteen.
During the next part of the novel, World War II is in full swing, it’s told entirely from Robbie’s point-of-view and he tells us that he agreed to and was allowed to leave jail to go fight in the war against Hitler’s Germany. Since he’d done so well in jail, the military life wasn’t much harder than what he had already been living through except way more fresh air and more freedom. We follow Robbie all through this portion of the book; when we catch up with Robbie, he was injured in his side by pieces of shrapnel and he was traveling with two other soldiers since they were all heading to the same place. At this time in the war the allied forces suffered some losses and needed to strategize, regroup, etc. France, in particular, had to retreat and that was why Robbie with many, many others were walking/hiking in the same direction. Robbie is working hard to hide his injury, but it was causing him a lot of pain and based on his description of his wound after observing it, it sounds like it was either starting to get infected or is already infected and that the infection may have been deeper inside his body which is bad no matter which one we’re speaking of.
We learn what Robbie thought on the night of dinner before the dinner when everything was going better than he thought they would that night, during the dinner when things were tense and the night Robbie had envisioned with Cee was unraveling to after dinner when he returns with the boys only to be accused of a crime that he was innocent of and go to jail for it. He tells us how he felt about Cee, Briony, Cee’s family members, jail and having to live there as an innocent man and how he wonders if he would have helped in the war in a different capacity. All interesting questions. Robbie tells us that Cee became a nurse after finding out from one of her letters. Robbie and Cecilia were both very much in love still and he was hoping he could make it back to see Cee again. He tells us Cee’s family has attempted to contact her, but she still refuses to accept their correspondence. Robbie couldn’t bear the thought of being the reason she dies without having spoken to or seen her family so he encouraged her to get back in touch with her family. In one letter she wrote to him, she mentioned how she received correspondence from Briony who wanted to meet with Cecilia because she wanted to recant her statement from about 5-6 years ago. He was interested by this news, but didn’t get his hopes up because he didn’t think it could be done or he thought she may back out of it.
The next part of the book is told from Briony’s point-of-view; she followed in Cecilia’s footsteps and became a nurse. She is training and working at the same hospital that Cee began at when she became a nurse. Briony’s days were long and very structured involving long hours of work, hours of study, classes to attend and very little free time. She had a friend named Fiona and told readers that she submitted a somewhat long novella to a literary magazine to see if they would publish it, but hadn’t heard anything back at the time. Briony also cut off ties with her parents while in college, but she eventually began speaking to them again. One day, she receives a letter in the mail from her father who informs her that her twenty year old cousin, Lola, is getting married and provides her details of the wedding. Although she was not invited, Briony attended the ceremony anyway and quietly sat in the back of the church.
Once Briony saw who Lola was marrying, she realized Lola was marrying her rapist and wondered if she really loved him or simply convinced herself that she does. She saw her cheating aunt back with her displeased husband as well as Jackson and Peirrot who recognized her when they saw her. After that, Briony went to Cee’s “apartment” to talk to her; Cecilia is cold to Briony, tells her she would never forgive her for what she did and wanted to know about her plans to alter her statement. While she and Briony discuss this issue, Robbie emerged from the bedroom area of this tiny room turned apartment. He was angry and confronted Briony about her behavior – he asked her why she lied, why she waited so long, did she have any idea what jail was like and how it felt to be accused of a crime even though you are innocent or that she ruined lives. It was a little brutal and Briony could only nervously apologize for her poor decision making, meddling and lying when she was younger. Briony explains to readers how they sat her down at the table in the room so they could discuss what they wanted Briony to do to begin the process of reestablishing Robbie’s innocence of the crime. Then they explained to her that Robbie had to leave later than day to report for duty and that they wanted to spend the remaining time they had together alone, so they walked her to the bus station where they said their good-byes and parted ways.
The very last part of the book takes place in 1999, it is told from Briony’s point-of-view and she is in her sixties in this portion of the book; Briony tells readers that she was getting ready to head out of town for her birthday party in a couple of days. She stays busy donating old letters and documents to her local library’s archive, she has written and will publish (after all parties have died) a full novel recounting the true events that happened so many years ago on that fateful night when the twins decided to run away. Briony received some bad news regarding her health, but took the news gracefully and didn’t let it ruin her plans. The story flows fairly well; the author does a good job developing the characters. Some parts of the ending surprised me and I found the book to be more sad than happy, but war would have that effect on the mood and tone of a novel. I think the author did a good job weaving the story through the different years and although I’m not usually a fan of surprise endings – I still sort of like this book.
A short list of the reasons I have a hard time giving this book 4 or 5 stars:
- There are few characters that I have a passionate dislike for and I can’t think of any thirteen year old characters that I dislike until I met Briony. Now, I can’t think something a pre-teen girl can do that’s worse than what Briony put Cecilia, Robbie and his mother, Grace, through. It’s disgusting and because she lied about it without a second thought about the possible consequences of her actions makes me dislike her as a person. I’m not sure there is any redeeming her in my eyes.
- I don’t agree with the way the whole group jumped on the bandwagon and immediately believed Briony’s story – this is the same girl who was described as imaginative and almost obsessed with writing. I’m kind of shocked her parents didn’t ask more questions and I’m shocked the police didn’t appear to do a more thorough investigation into these claims.
- Robbie has too much to lose for it to make sense for him to do something so horrendous: ⠂he’s had a job as the Tallis’ landscaper, he was attending college for a degree in horticulture (thanks to help from Mr. Tallis), planned to attend medical school to become a doctor (with financial help from Mr. Tallis) and he and his mother lived in a house on the Tallis’ premises; ⠂readers know that Robbie was chatting up Cecilia on campus and at the fountain, wrote her a secret and vulgar letter, spent time with her on campus, and was kissing and making love to Cecilia in the back corner of the library. One would have to ask themselves if Robbie would jeopardize his job, financial assistance for school, shelter and his budding relationship with Cecilia over some thin, fifteen year old girl? It’s not logical given everything Robbie has going for him. I hate seeing innocent people go to jail over lies.
- I’m not sure I would trust the word of a thirteen year old girl like Briony on it’s own – she would have to present some strong physical evidence to back up her claim since she is prone to flights of fancy. I don’t think Briony’s story should have been taken as seriously since there was no trustworthy adult or other witness around to back up her version of what happened. A more thorough investigation should have been conducted – the police dropped the ball on that one.
- I think this book is a great example of why we, as logical rational adults, can’t simply and blindly “believe all women” – to be blunt, sometimes they lie.
- It underscores the importance of believing in the ideal and principle of innocent until proven guilty, the importance of laws that are enforced fairly and correctly and why due process is so very important.
- As a parent, I don’t think I would handle a situation in which one of my children was being wrongly accused of a crime and actually ended up in jail because of it. I wouldn’t be able to rest until I gathered more than enough evidence to prove my child’s innocence.
This book brought out some very strong emotions; I’m disappointed in Briony for lying causing irreparable harm and meddling in other people’s affairs; I’m annoyed with her parents for not knowing their daughter’s personality and immediately assume she hasn’t thought up some story and is instead telling the truth. Then again, dad was almost never home due to “work” obligations and mom was usually dealing with migraines so she only left her bedroom when she wasn’t having one or needing rest. It seems that it was not often that she was out of her bedroom. I’m sad for Cecilia and Robbie because their relationship and other portions of their lives were put on hold or permanently destroyed due to the selfish actions of Briony. I’m glad she works to right her wrong later, but I also wish she hadn’t waited so long to take care of it.
Since the book elicited these strong feelings I figure the author did a good job writing it. I would recommend this book to any avid reader and readers who love historical fiction with romance. I purchased the book at a used bookstore for $5, I think checking your local library for a copy will likely yield a result. However, if you can’t find a copy of the book, you can purchase a hardback copy at Barnes and Noble for $25.00. Thanks for stopping by my book review blog! Did you know there are more book review blogs here? Check them out and don’t forget to check again in the next few weeks for the next book review of a non-fiction book that came out recently.