Review of Atonement by Ian McEwan

Click here to get the Atonement book on Amazon

Click here to get the Atonement movie on Amazon

The last week of May / start of June marks an anniversary of the evacuation of Britain’s Expeditionary Force from the shores of Dunkirk in World War 2. Atonement is a movie and a novel set at the time. I saw it several years ago and read the novel recently to look at adaptation. Chances are you’ve seen or heard of it, especially with an all star cast on screen. 

Atonement is a tragic romance set in South East England and Dunkirk in Northern France on the eve of the Second World War, and concludes many years later in 1999 during one of the character’s terminal years. A love rivalry, class protection and a crime lead to an arrest and personal tragedies at a wealthy family estate in 1935. The basic romance plot is: he gets the girl, loses the girl, he gets the girl again.

I found the author’s heralding of calamities interesting, as a way to create suspense e.g. “Within the half hour, Briony would commit her crime.” Though engaging throughout, it’s the ending which is either convenient or innovative.

The movie’s apocalyptic Dunkirk beach scene really grabbed me first time. I still think it’s some of the best imagery and music in movies and looks like it was done in one take. Interestingly, I met Dario Marianelli, the score composer, some years back and asked about writing that very piece of music (Elegy for Dunkirk), expecting him to say something moving to echo its tone. ‘It was just one afternoon,’ he replied, quite humbly. I remember thinking he could have told a story. Unfortunately, it never sounded the same after that.

Even great books don’t necessarily make for good screen material but, with a few adjustments, this one did. There are some variations in the movie but it’s largely the same storyline, though the movie felt more successful at building tension at the start.

The book takes a longish route into the characters at the beginning, which the movie manages to (has to) avoid. But this is where I think books differ, in that, readers expect more depth than can be shown on screen in two hours.

The language and omniscient author are a bit complex at the beginning so it may feel like a tough read at the start, though really worth sticking with. The book got going somewhere between Chapter 7-9 for me. I’d recommend the audio book to take the work out of the read. I listened at 1.75 speed.

McEwan is masterful in turning the ordinary into the extraordinary, which is where I think story talent lives. “He too, like Briony, would go out searching alone. This decision, as he was to acknowledge many times, transformed his life.” Like crossing a road and getting run over, I’d guess. 🤔

Back to that final scene. It’s an innovative (necessary) way of snatching a positive end from a tragic storyline, though it is wrapped up in author adulation which isn’t my bag personally. While it works surprisingly well, I felt damnation would have been more fitting than regret (which is kinda normal) for the character, given the story. However, I can see that that isn’t a romance ending.

Overall Verdict: I’m not a romance reader but this is one of my favourite historical fiction stories with an innovative ending, a really compelling screen adaptation and a superb movie score.

There are scores of good quotes, but here are a handful of my favourites:

Memorable quotes:

“His excitement was close to pain and sharpened by the pressure of contradictions: she was familiar like a sister, she was exotic like a lover; he had always known her, he knew nothing about her; she was plain, she was beautiful; she was capable—how easily she protected herself against her brother—and twenty minutes ago she had wept; his stupid letter repelled her but it unlocked her. He regretted it, and he exulted in his mistake.” 

“Her eyelids were swollen and pink, and she was pinching on her lower lip with forefinger and thumb, an old sign with Briony that some serious weeping was to be done.”

“She would never be able to console herself that she was pressured or bullied. She never was. She trapped herself, she marched into the labyrinth of her own construction, and was too young, too awestruck, too keen to please, to insist on making her own way back.”

Click here to get the Atonement book on Amazon

Click here to get the Atonement movie on Amazon


Other interesting reviews which you may have missed (click the title name):

Checkmate in Berlin: Loved it! I was glued and thrilled beginning to end. You must read this book first, and take it with you if you visit Berlin with an eye on history. It also illuminates Russia’s war in 2022 in many ways.

Slaughterhouse-Five: Very readable WW2 fiction, if you can get over the odd combination of Dresden vs aliens and Eternalism, and an ambiguous ending.

Astronaut Wives Club: A great non-fiction book which does exactly what it says in the title.

Rocket Men: Another amazing book which retells mankind’s first foray to the moon on Apollo 8.

The Book of Daniel: A thriller, echoeing the fate of the real Rosenbergs, convicted and executed as American Communists during the fifties Red Scare.

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