Britain's first man of fiction poses essential questions in his book that will be lost on cinemagoers this summer
You will undoubtedly have seen the film adaptation of this book splashed across billboards and bus stops around the city this summer. Released at the beginning of the month, Keira Knightley’s generic starlet pout has dominated advertising space. But those who fail to realise that this latest cinematic offering is in fact the finest achievement of one of Britain’s most prolific contemporary writers are missing a literary treat.
'Atonement' revolves around ‘Briony’s crime’: the rape of a young girl by a family friend as perceived through the eyes of the young Briony Tallis. As the sole witness, Briony’s willingness to act upon her conviction about what she saw shapes the destinies of many of McEwan’s characters and leaves her with a guilty weight of responsibility for which she spends the rest of her life atoning. The ‘crime’ takes place in the oppressive summer heat of 1935 at the summer house of the Tallises, a well-to-do upper middle class family of which Briony is the youngest offspring. A thirteen year old playwright obsessed with making the transition to adulthood, Briony is often the reader’s eyes as she bosses her reluctant subjects, a family of children taking refuge from their parents’ divorce, into acting out her latest theatrical offering.
Meanwhile, Celia, Briony’s elder sister (and the victim of Knightley’s drama school interpretation in the film), has returned to the family home after graduating from Cambridge. Listless and unsure of where her future lies, Celia’s sudden confident womanhood attracts the attention of Robbie Turner, son of the housekeeper, who the Tallises funded through a successful academic career. Their affair, witnessed by Briony, develops into a life long love story made near impossible after the fateful night of ‘Briony’s crime’.
When Robbie joins the army in the second of the three parts of the novel, 'Atonement' degenerates into a horrifyingly graphic depiction of the Second World War and hurls the characters far from the comfort of that hot interwar summer. McEwan’s powerful evocation of wartime horror are so poetically gruesome in their realism that they will render you speechless – testament to the extent of his achievement here.
The story concludes in latter day London with a twist in the plot that crashes towards the reader and casts doubt over all of McEwan’s carefully projected plot in the rest of the novel. Here McEwan addresses some important questions: does life imitate art? Can writers create their own truths? 'Atonement' is a focused study of both of these questions disguised within a blockbuster of a fictional tale, the action-packed page-turning qualities of which have obviously not been lost on the money-hungry film industry, though the intricacies of McEwan's quest for truth doubtless have.