As cunning as a fox who's just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University.
Atonement centers around an event that changes and ruins lives, the leading up to that event and the consequences of that event.
“It wasn't only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you.” - Atonement
In summer during the mid 1930’s in England Briony Tallis is a 13 year old girl determined to be a writer. She teeters on the cusp of childhood and becoming an adult but there are so many things she does not understand. Her sister Cecilia is home from Cambridge contemplating her future and feeling annoyed with her childhood friend, Robbie Turner, the son of a family servant whose education is supported by Briony and Cecilia’s father. Briony witnesses tension between Cecilia and Robbie and misinterprets. Later in the day Cecilia and Briony’s brother comes home with a friend, Paul Marshall. During the afternoon Briony gives up on a play she has written to be performed by her visiting cousins and wanders the grounds in contemplation. Robbie sees her and asks her to deliver a note to Cecilia, realizing only too late that he put the wrong draft in the envelope. The letter, which Briony reads, contains a very sexually explicit clause which confuses Briony and later leads her to believe that Robbie is some sort of sex maniac. Walking in on Cecilia and Robbie having sex in the library later that evening, an even which Briony interprets as Robbie attacking Cecilia, reinforces her ideas about Robbie. Robbie and Cecilia have on the contrary admitted their love to each other and made love in the library. That evening Briony’s younger twin cousins run away and everybody goes out searching for them. Briony wanders the ground and stumbles upon her older cousin, Lola, being raped by someone Briony does not see clearly. The events earlier that day lead Briony to conclude that it was Robbie who raped Lola. She tells the police repeatedly that she knows that Robbie did it but the police push her to admit wether she saw him or not. Briony feels so sure that she says she saw Robbie and later she feels she cannot recant her statement. Robbie is lead away in handcuffs and Cecilia tells him that she believes in him and will wait for him.
The second part of the novel is told from Robbie’s perspective. It has been several years since the incident and Robbie has been set free from prison to serve in the army. This part mainly centers around his march towards Dunkirk which is being evacuated with two other soldiers. Robbie muses on the reasons behind Briony pointing the finger at Robbie and remembers meeting Cecilia for the first time after prison. That meeting, for half an hour, was all they could manage before he was deployed but they have written each other. Cecilia has broken ties with her family and moved to London to become a nurse.
“How guilt refined the methods of self-torture, threading the beads of detail into an eternal loop, a rosary to be fingered for a lifetime.” - Atonement
The third part of the novel is told from the perspective of Briony. She has given up her place at Cambridge and has come to London to become a nurse. Part of the reason is to gain her independence from her family and, as Cecilia speculates in a letter to Robbie, part of the reason is to atone for her actions. Briony is a trainee nurse in a London hospital and experiences the effects of war when, after the evacuation of Dunkirk, the hospital is flooded with severely wounded and dying soldiers. She finds out that Lola is about to marry Paul Marshall and goes to the wedding and stands at the back. During the service Briony muses on the events of that night five years ago and concludes that it was Paul Marshall she saw raping Lola. After the wedding she goes to see her sister and finds Robbie staying with her. They are both angry and refuse to forgive her but Briony agrees to tell the truth. She tells them how very sorry she is.
“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.” - Atonement
Part four of the novel is again told from the perspective of Briony on her 77th birthday. She has just finished a novel, her last novel as she has just been diagnosed with vascular dementia. She goes to her former home, now a hotel, to celebrate her birthday with her family. Later in the night when she cannot sleep she writes a sort of epilogue to her book. She writes that she told the truth until where Briony goes to see her sister. She admits that she never went to see her, she only went so far as Lola’s wedding. She writes that Robbie died in Bray Dunes during the evacuation of Dunkirk from septicemia and that Cecilia died that same year by the bomb that fell on Balham Underground station. She writes that she wanted to give them the time they so wanted to spend together and a happy ending in her book that they never got in real life because of her.
All in all Atonement is beautifully written. The first part, describing the inner thoughts of several characters in the build up to the incident so well. I don’t know wether part two, with Robbie's drive to survive, or part three, about Briony having grown up and growing up even more when she begins caring for severely wounded soldiers. I knew how the book would end as I had seen the movie several years ago but that did not stop me from enjoying the book. There is so much more to the book than the plot, the characters themselves, their growth and their thoughts are what make this book what it is.