Sidharth Vardhan

The misery of Atonement – a review of Ian McEwan book

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Published: 2001
On a hot summer day in 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis witnesses the flirtation between her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, the son of a servant. But Briony’s incomplete grasp of adult motives and her precocious imagination bring about a crime that will change all their lives, a crime whose repercussions Atonement follows through the chaos and carnage of World War II and into the close of the twentieth century.

(A review of 'Atonement',
a novel by Ian McEwan
Nominated for Booker Prize in 1998
first written on October 25, 2013)

"It was common enough, to see so much death and want a child."

Ian McEwan (Atonement)

We each live in our own world - and worlds of children are so far simpler than those of grown-ups; the friction between these worlds allows chances for misunderstandings. McEwan, who seems to have a thing for misunderstandings, banks on them for the beautiful story.

Atonement Ian McEwan Sidharth Vardhan review analysis
A still from the movie based on the book with the same name

The number of coincidences in the first part could have looked objectionable in hands of some other author.

Robbie suddenly finds his life thrown off the track and is made to bear punishment for a crime he never did - that must be how most of Europe have felt during second world war.

A child's innocent mistake destroys future of a young man. But scratch the surface there - was she as innocent as she claimed? Or was there malice, at least at subconscious level?

She repents as she realizes her mistake, but the wrong done can never be corrected fully. It is so far easier to wrong than to correct:

"A person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn and not easily mended."

Ian McEwan (Atonement)

The guilt will never die - it is always there eating into one's heart. She turns her whole life into an atonement - but even that is not enough.

Her victims won't forgive her, and why should they? Her suffering doesn't redeem theirs. Whether or not it was an innocent mistake, whether or not she was a child, whether or not she repented - the forgiveness was ou of question.

"It was not reasonable or just to hate Briony, but it helped."

Ian McEwan (Atonement)

And so, what else is one to do with guilt? Suffering souls yearn for expression - as if that is all it needs to cure its suffering. But even assuming that was true, confessing one's guilt is something too difficult - Even if we intend to be honest, all we seem to manage are a few honest lies. All art, arising out of guilt, must thus, by definition, suffer inadequacy:

"How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all."

Ian McEwan (Atonement)

- That kind of sums up why 'The Sense of an Ending' might have appeared so incomplete (to me at least).

The prose is incredibly rich. There are very few writers who can build the psychology of characters so perfectly. McEwan didn't impress me with 'Amsterdam' - mostly because its story seemed too forced, its a good thing I didn't go along with my worse judgment.

"She turned her face into the pillow and let her tears drain into it, and felt that yet more was lost, when there was no witness to her sorrow."

Ian McEwan (Atonement)

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