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Atonement by Ian McEwan

Updated: Oct 25, 2020

On a hot summer day in 1935, imaginative thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis watches her older sister undress and step into a fountain in front of family friend Robbie. By the next morning, her misinterpretations of the day’s events will forever have changed the lives of several family members and friends. The Tallis family is torn apart as the young girl finds herself incapable of detangling the story she has woven about a grown-up world she does not yet understand. For the rest of her life Briony will seek to atone for the harm she has caused that night but life takes its course and some things cannot be amended.

Ian McEwan dives into the minds of the young girl, existing somewhere between childhood and adulthood, too far removed from the former to ignore the latter, but not yet ready to grasp it either. Themes such as truth, authorship, forgiveness and love, but also war, fear and human fallibility are explored in an engaging introspective narrative, between changing perspectives and an evolving structure. While Part One is organised chronologically in chapters, describing that fateful day, Part Two and Three are designed less orderly. Following Briony into her life as a nurse and Robbie into the Second World War, McEwan starts jumping back and forth in time, writes streams of thoughts and narrates events. Finally, the last part seeks to frame the story, but also poses questions on the reliability of narrators and authors.

The language in Atonement is truly beautiful. While the beginning is slow, there was no point at which I struggled reading as the richness and fluidity of McEwan’s writing carried me easily through the 370 pages. A truly wonderful read for those who enjoy diving deep into a character’s mind and getting lost in the beauty of words.

“A story was a form of telepathy. By means of inking symbols onto a page, she was able to send thoughts and feelings from her mind to her reader's. It was a magical process, so commonplace that no one stopped to wonder at it.”

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