Ian McEwan – Atonement
“Atonement” is a historical fiction, a love story and a bildungsroman written by the English writer Ian McEwan and published in 2001. Atonement is recognized as McEwan’s masterpiece. It is the story of a woman who tries to atone her crime through her novel. The novel is divided into three parts, with a denouement from the author. The setting in time and place is England and France, the years between 1935, 1940 and 1999. Every part takes the point of view of a character and through his/her eyes and feelings, the reader can understand what the character is living.
The first part is settled in a hot summer day in 1935, the events narrated develops during 24 hours. On a warm day during the summer in 1935, the thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis writes a comedy for the return of her brother Leon. The whole Tallis family waits with anxiety the visit of Leon and his friend Paul Marshall, an industrialist of the chocolate. That same evening her cousins escape and the whole family goes to look for the two twins. Here Briony witnesses the violence suffered by Lola (a cousin of her). Although it was too dark to see, Briony convinces everybody that the raper was Robbie Turner, the housekeeper’s son. The boy is brought to jail and separated from his lover Cecilia Tallis, Leon and Briony’s sister. This unfounded accusation will change forever and irremediably the lives of all the characters.
The second part is settled five years later and it is narrated from the point of view of Robbie. Through his eyes, the reader can live the Second World War and its atrocities. Meanwhile, Briony has signed up as a nurse in London. Suffering from guilt for her crime as girl, Briony hopes nursing will act as a penance for her sin. Briony is also still writing.
The third part is contemporary to the second but is narrated from the point of view of Briony who becomes a nurse. At the end of part three, Briony visits her sister, who is living with Robbie. Briony admits her guilt and seek counsel on what she can do to make it better. The last we see of Robbie and Cecilia are on the tube station platform. The end of the third part ,"London 1999", is a letter from the author to the reader, where it becomes clear that the story we have read up to that moment is nothing else than the novel written by the protagonist. Briony informs her reader that she has made up the part about visiting Cecilia and Robbie in London and how both people died in the war. Her act to let their love last forever in the pages of her book will be her final atonement to her crime. Then "Atonement" is a metafictional novel, a novel in the novel.
This ending is typical of McEwan's style, always ready to surprise his readers: he creates the illusion of a happy ending and then he destroys it with the cruel reality of the facts. The novel ends with the birthday party in honor of Briony that now is 77 years old. She has just discovered to be afflicted from a serious illness that soon will make her lose her memory and bring her to death. All her family participates to the party to celebrate her. The children play the comedy written by her so many years before: "The Misadventures of Arabella". The novel has a cyclical structure, in fact it begins and finishes with a party and with Briony's comedy, it is as a return to the beginnings that it underlines the finished expiation from Briony and therefore a new beginning.
The central themes are love, (the love between Cecilia and Robbie), and war, the war that destroys the life of everybody, but which has also a purifying function: through it, the characters expiate their guilty. Another theme, which is recalled by the title, is atonement: the entire plot of the novel centres on a woman who devotes her entire life repenting a crime she committed while still a young girl.