Ian McEwan,
(Vintage, 2001)

Just a few years following his 50th birthday, Ian McEwan achieved the assumed dream of anyone else working in his profession: he published a masterpiece. Atonement, the British author's eighth novel, is an ambitious tale of love, deceit and misunderstanding that begins on a hot summer day in 1935 and dashes ahead another 64 years by the turn of the final page. Told from multiple points of view, the story focuses on how a misinterpretation, combined with a touch of imagination, can lead to lasting consequences for all involved parties.

Of course, any act -- both good and bad -- can be interpreted in any number of ways by any number of people. But through the innocent eyes of a 13-year-old girl, whose passion for storytelling outweighs all other interests, a mere moment of awkward flirtation can simply be considered an act of evil without room for hesitation. Such is the case of young Briony Tallis, who becomes suspicious of her older sister's friend, Robbie Turner, shortly after spotting them together outside of the home. Coupled with pieces of probable evidence that Briony begins to collect following the chance encounter, it quickly becomes Briony's goal to take Robbie down and save Cecilia in the process, no matter the consequences.

What is so impressive about McEwan's work is his seemingly effortless ability to go in and out of his characters' heads, split rather evenly -- at least in part one, or half of the novel -- between Briony, Cecilia and Robbie. He appears to be so comfortable with his creations, identifying their thought processes and feelings, and meticulously dissecting every aspect of that fateful day that will forever change their lives. Parts two and three, set four or more years in the future, become a bit more personal, as focus shifts from three characters to one, with Robbie deservedly keeping a part to himself, and Briony the other. The fourth and final part zooms forward to 1999, where the fates of Briony, Cecilia and Robbie are finally sealed, and is told in first person instead of third.

Bound to become a classic, the gentle unfolding of McEwan's story is really rather breathtaking. Its teachings on what banking on assumptions can lead to is timeless, and will likely continue to teach as we -- like the book -- move ahead.

review by
Eric Hughes

19 July 2008

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