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Friday, 28 September, 2001, 13:24 GMT 14:24 UK
McEwan's complicated triumph
Ian McEwan
McEwan won the Booker with Amsterdam in 1998
By BBC News Online's Olive Clancy

Atonement starts out like a classic country house novel.

It seems to be all romping upper class girls, cooks and frightfully important Daddy unable to come down from London.

But it is a tribute to McEwan's writing that you soon forget that his 13-year-old protagonist is an over-privileged, Mitford-esque, play-writing moppet.

Young Briony witnesses a series of highly charged encounters which she does not fully understand and completely misinterprets.

Before long she is accusing a family friend of a crime he did not commit.

It is something for which he, the innocent and she, the false accuser, atones for the rest of the novel and their lives.


This is one of those books that is a struggle to explain for fear of ruining the suspense.

Atonement has page-turning sequences that no reader should be deprived of.

The build-up of tension in the early section of the book takes place over a stifflingly hot 1935 summer's day.

Briony watches from a distance as her older sister Cecilia and her father's young protégé - the brilliant cleaning lady's son Robbie - skirt around each other.

Atonement is a joint favourite to win the Booker
Briony, half-seeing, half-knowing has created a drama around the pair with disastrous results.

The plot thickens, a crime occurs and before you know you are in part two of the book and its years later.

There are a few paragraphs of readerly anxiety as you want to know what happened before becoming engrossed in the trials of a wounded Robbie attempting to reach Dunkirk in 1940.


It is as realistic a portrayal of the horror of war as I have read, by erratic turns both heroic and ignominious.

The sheer quirkiness of the descriptions and incidents bears the hallmark of truth and intense research.

At one point an increasingly desperate Robbie is passed by a motorcycle driven by two soldiers, one with useless arms the other with dreadfully wounded legs.

Apparently McEwan's father witnessed just such an incident during the war.

When we leave the innocent Robbie to his enforced atonement, it is to take up Briony's story as she trains to be a nurse in London.

Her penance is to be willingly bullied and regimented into the necessary shape to cope with the onslaught of the wounded from the battlefields.

Finally we learn that the whole story is written by Briony and that she considers it her atonement for what happened that sultry 1935 day.

It was this part that I liked least about the book.

It's quite nice and comforting sometimes to have an unseeing omniscient figure in the book - but that is generally the author.

This time that figure is Briony herself and inevitably she grants herself atonement.

Nice old lady though she turns out to be, finding that the entire story was given from her own perspective only made me suspect her motives.

But then these 20 odd pages probably would not bother most in what is undoubtedly a great read.

And perhaps leaving the reader with suspicions of the protagonist is exactly what McEwan - famed for his forays into the darker side of human nature - set out to do.

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