Novel: Atonement

Author: Ian McEwan, 2001
Genre: Literary Fiction
Format: Paperback, 372 pages

Last year me and my English professor sat down do discuss unreliable narrators. I couldn’t really grasp the term. Can you absolutely trust the author’s words, she was asking me. Perhaps not, I said convinced that she was talking about biases and all such nonsense, but isn’t fiction by definition a lie? I wish my teacher found the time to introduce Atonement, because Briony would have blown my literary socks off. The novel consists of four parts and sometimes it is hard to precisely pinpoint where the reality ends and the imagination of a thirteen-year-old begins.

Here we are introduced to Briony – a young  girl and aspiring writer. She addresses the events of the summer 1935 as catalysts that opened her eyes on what adulthood might be like and what a real writer is expected to be. The irony of this is the fact that Briony insists on treating people around her as simply characters from one of her childhood stories. In one of the scenes she studies the movement of her finger to figure out the meaning of free will. She wonders if the motion is caused by her own desire to move it, or if the finger itself decides to move on her behalf. This leads her to conclude that perhaps just like her many other people study their fingers and have complicated thought about existence. However, the girl dismisses the thought as overly complicated, and chooses to believe in her own uniqueness.

Then there is the play that falls apart. Why is Briony so insistent that her character Arabella must be played by no one but herself? Why is she so upset when she sees her cousin Lola taking over the leading role and the direction of the play? Again, Briony sees “The Trials of Arabella” as the story that cannot possibly be about anyone but herself, therefore she must be the puppeteer in this show. Refusing to let her freckled cousin to take the center stage of her life, Briony rips the poster in half and retires into solitude to take her anger on nettles. She has the part of the tortured artist perfectly rehearsed even now:

As she saw the dress make its perfect, clinging fit around her cousin and witnessed her mother’s heartless smile, Briony knew her only reasonable choice then would be to run away, to live under hedges, eat berries and speak to no one, and be found by bearded woodsman one winter’s dawn, curled up at the base of a giant oak, beautiful and dead, and barefoot, or perhaps wearing the ballet pumps with the pink ribbon straps… (p.14-15)

I admire the work that Ian McEwan did on the characterization of Briony. In this little girl he summed up the neediness for attention and recognition among teenagers and the certainty of every author falling into the trap of picturing themselves in their  work(*cough*Twilight*cough*). I can absolutely believe that Briony exists, and that it could have been me at the age of thirteen. I love her flaws and the way she innocently destroys those around her. Oh how oblivious she is to the fact that unlike her characters, she might have to face the consequences of her actions, and that life does not always have a happy ending!

With the same childish intentions Briony comes to terrible conclusions when she sees the brief moments of flirtation between her sister Cecilia and young Robbie Turner. She interprets Robbie’s passion for violent tendencies, and seeks out the way to protect Cecilia. The chance presents itself when Lola is assaulted by a mysterious perpetrator. Right away Briony concludes that it must be no other than Robbie, and poses as a witness to the crime. Just like that, the little girl found the courage and reason to destroy a man’s life by starring him as a villain in one of her imaginative stories.

It is hard for me to explain all of my emotions toward the novel without revealing major spoilers, therefore I must stop writing. The last thing I have to say is that the ending shattered my heart to million pieces. It is both hopeful, yet cruel, and wonderfully poetic. Because I had a chance to see the movie before reading the book, you would think that I was plenty prepared for what was to come at the end. Nevertheless, the impact from experiencing the conclusion for the second time never dulled the emotions, and I found myself tearing up yet again.

Atonement is about telling fiction out of different reasons. One can tell a lie to hurt or sooth somebody, and Briony manages both. As she matures she sees the need to redeem her evil lies by giving hope through kind lies, but can she really atone for what she did without once and for all abandoning her imagination and just sticking to the truth? Great book, definitely a keeper I will come back to again and again.

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