In the first part of Ian McEwans novel Atonement, Briony Tallis tells a lie. She is confused, she wants to punish and she does so, spectacularly, sending Robbie Turner to prison and setting up the atonement which is to follow. The fact that the book has now been made into a major film not only highlights the skill of the author but also demonstrates the resonance of his message. Atonement, the dictionary tells us, is about making amends and in a religious sense it is about the reconciliation of God and Man through Christ. In the book, Briony tells her lie as a child and tries to atone for it as a young adult. The atonement, of course, is much more complicated than the lie itself and this is what makes McEwans novel such a good one albeit one which leaves so much unresolved, just as it can be in real life.
In the second part of the book, Briony has forsaken University to work her fingers to the bone as a war-time nurse but remains unforgiven by Robbie and by his lover, her older sister Cecilia. The book concludes with Briony a celebrated novelist and with Robbie and Cecilia long since dead. Atonement has helped shape Briony but theres no indication that it has changed the lives of anyone else.
McEwan himself says that one of the reasons for writing the book was to explore the relationship between what is imagined and what is true. It seems easy and not necessarily malicious for Briony to jump to the wrong conclusion in the first part of the book, but much harder to get down to the business of putting things right. Of course you can, if you want, put things right in a story but the real challenge is to do it in real life and this book at least makes you think about what this might involve.
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