Atonement by Ian Mcewan

Atonement was first published in 2001 in Great Britain by a publisher named Jonathan Cape. British Writer Ian Mcewan was nominated for the Booker prize for this book. By this time, he had already won a Booker Prize for his book Amsterdam in 1998.

“On the hottest day of the summer of 1935, thirteen year old Briony Tallis sees her sister Cecilia strip of her clothes and plunge into the fountain in the garden of her country house. Watching her is Robbie Turner, her childhood friend, who, like Cecilia has recently come down from Cambridge.

By the end of that day, the lives of all three will have been changed forever. Robbie and Cecilia will have crossed a boundary they had not even imagined at its start, and will have become victims of the younger girl’s imagination. Briony will have witnessed mysteries and committed a crime for which she will spend the rest of her life trying to atone.”

That is what the blurb of Atonement reads. It is rather ambiguous if you ask me, but it does invoke in the reader some sort of curiosity. Why else would I pick up a book and read it? All right, before I lie through my teeth, I think James Macavoy (who plays Robbie Turner in the film) is really really hot. And his Scottish accent makes him even more so. To be honest, I didn’t even know that Atonement was a booker-prize winning book until very recently.

However, before I watched the film, I wanted to read the book putting special emphasis on Robbie Turner(James Mcavoy’s character) to see how Macavoy had essayed his role in the film. However, inspite of my bias towards Turner, I found myself drawn to all three characters in the book. And soon enough, I had forgotten about Mcavoy and Keira Knightly and I was drawn into the book – in a parallel universe.

Ever since I have been a child, I have always identified with one character or another – I was little Bets in the Five Find Outers by Enid Blyton, “Princess Ariel” in “the Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Anderson, and “Ronald Weasley” in the Harry Potter series. However, for the first time, I could relate to all three characters at once and all of them made me hate them and love them at the same time. For once in my life, I could see things in shades of grey.

In this case, the writer tells the tale as a narrator; he gives Robbie Turner as well as Briony Tallis a voice. However, the three voices do not really speak “together”.

Briony Tallis is a precocious thirteen year old and thinks about oddities like love and writes about a play only in order to teach her brother Leon a thing or two about love. Leon is elder to Cecilia(who is about ten years older than Briony),is sweet-natured and not particularly ambitious. He moves about in elite circles and when he comes home to his country house in summer, he brings home his friend, chocolate tycoon Paul Marshall.

Briony is the writer in the family- her imagination runs wild and Briony is absolutely obsessed with writing. She looks up the dictionary for words and uses phrases like ‘hieroglyphs of her imagination’. Her mother lauds her writing skills and when she reads out from her play, her mother thinks that it is “stupendous”. Her imagination runs wild and having read too many novels, she expects real-life to imitate everything that she has read about. Most of her judgements are based on assumptions and not on facts. The play written by Briony is enacted by her cousin Lola and her two younger brothers.

Robbie Turner, who is Cambridge educated and articulate, intimidates Cecilia. The familiarity is annoying for both of them. They have grown up together, almost as brother and sister, and yet there is a strong social divide between them. He is, after all the son of a charwoman and he does a spot of gardening for Mr Tallis. He is exceptionally bright and there are a lot of allusions to different texts in the book, mainly Clarissa and Northanger Abbey. Funnily enough, Catherine Morland, the protagonist of Northanger Abbey is dispatched from there because of his social position. Robbie’s social position is also one of the signifying factors in the novel. Cecilia and Robbie are shy of their previous selves… and their first and only sexual encounter helps in bringing them together and in shedding their inhibitions about each other, about their shared past and about the fact that they hadn’t even spoken to each other properly even though they had been studying together in Cambridge for three years. Briony sees them in the library and having had a bias against Robbie ever since she had seen her sister stripping off her clothes and jumping into the water fountain, she thinks he is a sex maniac. Earlier, Robbie gives Briony an erotic letter to give to Cecilia. The letter is very Freudian and is not the letter he had meant to give to Cecilia. Before he can stop her and undo the damage, she reads the letter and forms an image of him in her head-she thinks he is a sick person who is after her sister and that it is her duty to protect her sister.

What she doesn’t know and cannot understand at thirteen is that her sister and her childhood friend Robbie, are slowly beginning to discover their love for each other and the apparently palpable hostility is nothing but sexual tension between them.

The two boys are living with their cousins because their mother has run away and the two boys are so miserable that they decide to run away as well. When everyone is out searching, Briony finds Lola lying down on the grass. It is quite obvious that she has been raped.

No one else is around and Briony’s testimony puts Robbie into jail. Only Cecilia and Robbie’s mother are convinced of Robbie’s innocence.

Cecilia cuts off all ties with her parents and takes up nursing. Cecilia and Robbie exchange letters but they never meet again. Robbie dies of septicemia (he joins the army during World War II)and Cecilia dies shortly after.

Briony takes up nursing in order to atone her wrongs. But what is interesting is that Briony Tallis writes a novel called Atonement where Cecilia Tallis and Robbie Turner are united in the end. By this time, Briony Tallis is a best-selling writer.

Her atonement is to give Cecilia and Robbie the life they deserved in her book because she was the reason that their lives were snatched away from them.

Reeti Roy

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