Bookmarked: Guilty as Charged for Loving Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’

Horoscope editor Cate Meyer reflects on a family road trip spent reading Ian McEwan’s “Atonement,” a metafictional exploration of the impact of a lie.

The book is better. 

That’s right — I’m one of those people. I’ve never even seen Joe Wright’s 2007 film adaptation of “Atonement” in full, but I know deep down in my heart, the book is better. 

I read Ian McEwan’s “Atonement” the summer before my senior year of high school. I chose it knowing it would be used for a second semester research paper in my literature class. I pitied those who chose slogs like “Jane Eyre” and “Grapes of Wrath” — “Atonement” seemed to have much simpler jargon. 

Despite having the entire summer to get into the 371-page book, I waited mere weeks before the start of school to crack it open. I ended up reading the entire book while sitting in the back of my family’s rental car in Glacier National Park. 

Every time we’d step out to enjoy the mountain view, I’d offer only a brief look so I could clamber back into the car and keep reading. 

“But I need to know what happens next,” I protested to my parents. 

It was all their fault anyway — they recommended the book to me. 

Published in 2001, the narrative focuses on many aspects and tales of culpability and forgiveness. The running storyline centers on a purposeful mistake made by young Briony Tallis and her attempts to relieve her guilty conscience and recompense her sins.

The book is sectioned into different plotlines, the first centered on a 1935 childhood summer on the Tallis estate. The second and third parts of the book focus on Robbie Turner’s time as a soldier and Briony’s time as a wartime nurse in World War II. The fourth and final section is set in 1999, shifting from third to first-person as Briony celebrates her 77th birthday. 

Briony is a writer, which is where the metafiction aspect of the book comes into play. The soul-baring intimacy of a writer’s work is given painfully beautiful life on the page.

“Even writing out the ‘she said’s, the ‘and then’s, made her wince, and she felt foolish, appearing to know about the emotions of an imaginary being,” McEwan writes. “Self-exposure was inevitable the moment she described a character’s weakness; the reader was bound to speculate that she was describing herself. What other authority could she have?”

McEwan writes devastatingly beautiful quotes warning his audience of the dangerous literary imagination and unreliable narrator. The reader thus begins to question the validity of the story they’ve been told — if Briony has truly achieved atonement.

“How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?” McEwan writes. “There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her.”

Late at night, I used my phone to type up my assigned reduction of the book in our cabin’s bathroom so as not to disturb my sleeping family. 

I had considered sitting outside on the porch and enjoying the nighttime view over the lake, but then I decided I’d rather not be mauled by a bear while wrangling loose-leaf papers. 

It felt odd to be cramped on the toilet seat, feet resting against the shower, reliving the brutal war-themed sections of the book in my phone’s notes app. 

One passage in particular has stuck with me. Robbie, serving his time as a soldier in World War II, fails to save a mother and child from a bombing. They stop running with him, instead huddling immobile in the center of the field. Robbie needs to leave them in order to survive.

Guilt-ridden, Robbie suffers a distressing nightmare, swaddled in the heat of his fellow soldiers, sleeping on a cellar floor.

“You’ve killed no one today?” McEwan writes. “But how many did you leave to die?”

The main themes of forgiveness and guilt are brought to a head. What does it mean for one to achieve atonement? Who is worthy of such redemption? 

“Let the guilty bury the innocent, and let no one change the evidence,” McEwan writes.

In my first-year honors lecture, my professor played a scene from the movie version of “Atonement” — twice.

Both times, I whispered to my friends, “The book is better. You should read the book.”

Still, none of them have read the book. Though I’ll convince them eventually — I’m sure of it. 

I recently bought McEwan’s latest publication “Lessons” from the English section of a bookstore in Rome. I’m immensely pleased with the purchase and eagerly look forward to reading it. 

Perhaps in a couple years I’ll write a Bookmarked about it.

“Bookmarked” is a recurring book review column.  

Featured image courtesy of Catherine Meyer

Catherine Meyer

Catherine Meyer