Book Review: Atonement by Ian McEwan

Posted July 12, 2013 by LeahAdmin in Reviews / 22 Comments

Book Review: Atonement by Ian McEwan
Atonement by Ian McEwan
Published by Anchor Books on 2001
Pages: 351
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased

The year is 1935 and 13-year-old Briony Tallis wants to be a writer. On a hot summer day at her English estate, she witnesses a private moment between her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie, a life-long friend and the son of a servant. Briony is too young to understand what she is seeing, and her vivid imagination and penchant for drama lead her to misread the situation. When a crime occurs later that night and people are desperate for answers, Briony spins her greatest story yet — a story she knows, on some level, is not true. This story, and the accusation she makes, has far-reaching consequences.

Atonement follows the repercussions of Briony’s actions through the destruction of WWII to the late 19th century. We see Briony as a nurse in WWII London as she adjusts to a lifestyle drastically different from her luxurious childhood and, later, as an elderly woman reflecting on the fallout from her childhood lie. We also see the tragic aftermath of her betrayal on the bloody turf of war-time France and in the heartbreak of a pair of star-crossed lovers.

I’ve been wanting to read this book without really knowing what it was about since the Keira Knightly movie came out in 2007; I never actually saw the movie, but Atonement stuck in my mind as something I was interested in seeing/reading. When I saw this book on the Buy-Two-Get-One-Free shelf at Barnes & Noble, I was thrilled to pick it up — and I devoured it on my road trip last month.

I really enjoyed this book. Ian McEwan is a very strong writer, and I loved delving into Briony’s mind and seeing the ways she tried to atone for her actions. I especially loved the revelations at the end of the book. I don’t know if I’d call it a twist, exactly, but Briony makes some interesting admissions; let’s just say she is a creator of fiction through and through. The ending is genius and heartbreaking, and it perfectly conveys the depth of her regret over the crime she committed as a girl. McEwan does a great job portraying the multiple ways Briony’s lie permanently changed the lives of those around her.

Atonement also depicts the brutality and terror of WWII. One section of this book takes the reader to war-torn France as the British soldiers retreat to the Channel; it was horrendous and very powerful. The descriptions of London were excellent, too. I spent four months in London a few years ago, and it was strange to read about how incredibly different the city was during the war.

I’ve been reading a lot more historical fiction than usual this year, and I’m beginning to love it! Atonement was a great read that looks at WWII, the changing class structure of Great Britain, betrayal, love, loss, and forgiveness.

  • I was thinking just the same as you were: the title “atonement” was stuck in my head, but I actually didn’t really know what the story was about. But it sounds really beautiful now that I’ve come to know something about it. I’m definitely putting this one on my TBR list 🙂

    • It’s funny how that happens 😛 It really is beautiful; for not knowing what it was about, I was pleasantly surprised.

  • I really love this book (and the movie, it’s absolutely stunning), though I know the “twist” turns some people off. Your review makes me want to re-read it!

    • Okay, I need to see the movie! It’s strange, I kind of hate twists like that in movies (Shutter Island made me SO MAD), but I love them in books. They’re the endings that stick with me and make me think.

  • I am such a fan of this novel! It’s been several years since I first read it, but after reading your review I am so tempted to pick it up again! Thanks for reminding me of how much I love it!

    • This seems like it would be a good book to re-read, knowing how it ends.

  • It’s hard to choose, but Atonement is probably my favorite Ian McEwan novel. I don’t think I’ve read anything like it…it’s quite a brilliant work of fiction.

    • I was so stunned by this book; it really is brilliant.

  • Your review made me want to reread this book and watch the movie one more time.

  • Jennifer @ The Relentless Reader

    I read this but it’s been SO long that I don’t remember much. It’s one I’ll definitely be re-reading at some point 🙂

    • Woot for re-reading! This seems like an interesting one to return to, given the “twist” at the end.

  • It took me a few times to get through this novel but I loved it immensely once I completed it. The movie is pretty good as well.

    • Everyone seems to like the movie; it’s a surprisingly strong consensus for an adaptation. I really need to see it!

  • This is definitely a favorite of mine. It’s so subtle and character-driven. Makes me want to try out some of McEwan’s other work!

    • Subtle is a really good word for it! Character-driven books are the best 🙂

    • I loved Solar (it’s hilarious), although I gather it is substantially different in tone and themes from Atonement.

      • I’ll look into that one!