Atonement is about an adolescent girl, a fantasist, who commits a crime unforgivable and life-changing by sending to prison an innocent man, who’s also her sister’s lover.
The precocious thirteen-year-old girl who’s impatient to grow up is called Briony . As a favor to Robbie, her family’s cleaner’s son, she delivers to her sister, Cecilia, a letter he wrote in mindless passion, and which Briony reads sans permission. In a fateful incident involving a cousin raped, the eager Briony becomes more careless and bolder with her interpretation, completing the crime that she started, with little thought of the consequences.
The first part of the book was a bit difficult to read, I must confess. Here, the writing style McEwan used doesn’t quite move things along unlike in The Comfort of Strangers, where he used a more traditional, but very accurate description and which I admire. Besides, I’ve experienced how stream-of-consciousness can be effective in telling a story (e.g. Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius). But near the end of the novel, in a rejection letter received by Briony, McEwan reveals his intention in experimenting with the style.
The same letter also explains why in the first part, the adolescent Briony used mature language. So one needs to suspend disbelief in Briony’s abstractions, for instance, of returning to Tallis manor after daydreaming as the realignment with what had been before. And we soon find out that because Briony is no ordinary girl in a white frilly dress, giving her an adult voice worked beautifully.
In the movie, Robbie and Cecilia meeting in the cafe is the most heartbreaking lovers’ reunion I’ve ever seen on screen. In the book, I’m greater moved by the last letter Cecilia wrote to Robbie. We know that when he carried that letter with him during the war, it is not owing to sentiment, but a faithful clinging to life after the war, to a life with Cecilia.
In part, by their forbidden love, and in part, by the precariousness of their situation, one feels that Robbie and Cecilia are the most tragic lovers.
Five years after the crime, eighteen-year-old Briony manifests her guilt by submitting to physical hardship; she chooses to clean bedpans and to mop floors 12 hours a day as a nurse-in-training over spending her student life in Cambridge.
Even in the end, Briony gets no reprieve; for the first time she sees her play, The Trials of Arabella, acted out by her cousin’s grandchildren on her seventy-seventh birthday. Such endless reminders of that fateful day must never feel ancient, must always bring fresh guilt, even as she herself is fading.
Can Briony ever be forgiven? Can we accept her atonement?
I suppose, as a writer she felt and believed, that in confessing her crime in a book she wrote, she has atoned. But because she never actually sought Cecilia and Robbie’s forgiveness while they were alive, the happy ending she desires for both, the atonement, can only be created in fiction.
Sadly, it is not the truth, but it’s the truth that she can live with.