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Classic book review: Atonement

The extraordinary range of "Atonement" suggests that there's nothing Ian McEwan can't do.

By Ron Charles / March 8, 2009

[The Monitor occasionally reprints material from its archives. This book review originally ran on March 14, 2002.] Ian McEwan won the Booker Prize in 1998 for a deadly little masterpiece called "Amsterdam."

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What seemed like a triumph of literary acumen then was, in fact, just a prelude to a far broader, more ambitious novel that captures the brutality of love and war and guilt. The extraordinary range of Atonement suggests that there's nothing McEwan can't do.

The story opens on a sweltering day at the ugly Gothic estate of Emily Tallis and her much-absent husband. McEwan rotates through the perspectives of several residents and guests during a ludicrous and ultimately disastrous weekend, turning subtly through a kind of mock tribute to Jane Austen, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf.

Thirteen-year-old Briony has composed a romantic play, in verse, for her older brother "to celebrate his return, provoke his admiration and guide him away from his careless succession of girlfriends, towards the right form of wife, the one who would persuade him to return to the countryside, the one who would sweetly request Briony's services as a bridesmaid." That seems a rather tall order for any play - in verse or otherwise - but Briony "was one of those children possessed by a desire to have the world just so."

Unfortunately, her three cousins, visiting while their scandalous mother has an affair in Paris, don't see the importance of helping Briony shape reality to her will. While pouting during a break from a particularly bad rehearsal, Briony watches her older sister and a young man in the yard arguing in front of the fountain.

Cecilia and Robbie appear to be tussling over an old vase. When it drops into the water, her sister strips to her underwear, retrieves the pieces, and marches away. The scene makes no sense to Briony at first, but it quickly provides the material for a new melodrama starring her.

Meanwhile, Robbie retreats to his room and realizes in frustration that he must no longer conceal his love for Cecilia, regardless of their recent argument by the fountain. After writing several drafts, including a rather crude sexual fantasy, he composes a confession of his love, rushes to the house, and asks Briony to deliver it to her sister.

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