Book Review – Atonement by Ian McEwan

The following review contains no spoilers; it’s just my reaction to the book. I’m planning to write a post at some point though discussing the themes and analysing the text in greater detail (from a very amateur perspective!) so that post will probably have to have some spoilers. But I’ll put a big warning up so you know!

Back of the Book Blurb

On the hottest day of the summer of 1934, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis sees her sister Cecilia strip off her clothes and plunge into the fountain in the garden of their 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 for ever. 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.


I’ve deliberately not gone into any more detail regarding the plot because I found the story to be very enjoyable and surprising without knowing what was coming next. What seems like a simple premise actually has a number of themes running through it, all woven subtly together in McEwan’s languorous elegant style. This is the first Ian McEwan novel I’ve read and I will definitely be seeking out his other work. Unfortunately it means I’m ignorant when it comes to comparing it to his other stories; is Atonement typical of his style?

Impatient readers looking for page turners will be turned off by the lengthy beginning. It does eventually turn into a page turner but in a much more controlled way than, say, a thriller story. There is a sense of horror as you progress further into the book, almost afraid to read the next page for fear of what might happen. Though it may not to be to everyone’s taste, I enjoyed the beginning of the story, the eloquent prose, getting to know the main characters and their setting. But there is also something menacing lurking beneath the seemingly innocent passages – I sensed early on that everything was slowly building up to something and then suddenly it all changes. The wheels have already begun turning with the incident at the fountain but it is one word that really changes everything. 

It’s interesting to note how self aware the text is; the lengthy beginning is actually referred to later on and analysed, and everything seems to have more purpose than it first seems. There are references to Virginia Woolf and indeed McEwan seems almost to be mimicking her style early on but everything turns in on itself. There is moral ambiguity galore and a bittersweetness that stays with you long after you’ve finished reading.

I’m drawn to stories where a seemingly random event or everyday occurrence can be misinterpreted or interrupted in some way, because in reality this happens all the time, even in the smallest ways. I was also impressed by how meticulous McEwan was in his research of the era; there is an almost effortless sense of place and time, as though he were living and experiencing the things he writes about. The themes that appear cover loss of innocence and a loss of place. It’s hard to discuss those further without going into the plot but there is a feeling of moving on, of being unable to go back to the way things were. When things start to change, they change forever.

There is a lot to ponder on in this story and plenty of character delving to be done. I would rate this book very highly and recommend it to people who don’t want a straightforward read – you’ll be lost be in the story but it will stay with you afterwards.



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