Ian McEwen wrote an astonishing book called Atonement. We find out that he has created an author who needs to make atonement for a sin early in her life. It’s one of those ‘stories within a story’. But the kind where, when you realize it, you have to put the book down and close your eyes for a second because your world just changed. Like after All The Light We Cannot See or Me Before You or Behind Her Eyes or Bel Canto (all books that I have had to put down because they completely changed my reality).
The MOVIE gets straight to the point of the shattering betrayal by younger sister Briony (pronounced BRY-uhny) (could we BE any more English? I love it). Briony sees the servant boy, Robbie, apparently impose himself on Briony’s older sister Cecilia, first at the fountain outside where the vase gets broken, then in the library where she sees them joined in sexual congress. She has little idea what sex is, of course, because she is young, and protected, and aristocratic, and these sorts of families don’t talk about those sorts of things.
The BOOK takes a certain amount of patience and focused time to see what McEwen would like to unpack for the reader first. He is brilliant at setting the scene, providing context, introducing smaller characters (who have a huge impact), exposing variables and tendencies. Because they all matter, in the end, to the characters he creates. No one is made hero or scapegoat in a vacuum, at least not in a McEwen novel.
We find out, later, that Cecilia and Robbie are indeed in love and burn with a pure passion that both brings them together and ruins them (mostly because aristocratic lips curl at the thought of a servant boy and a woman of class being together).
The deepest and irrevocable betrayal comes when Briony sees someone assault a different house guest – Lola. Lola can’t tell who is trying to rape her, and Briony only sees a retreating male form. Briony makes the connection with Robbie, from earlier, to this attempted rape and says it was Robbie also – she is sure of it.
He gets sent to prison, then the war starts, then he gets to join the army as a conscript (his other choice was to stay in prison forever). Cecilia ends up as a trained nurse, as does Briony.
The betrayal is this: Briony loved Robbie for herself and did NOT know it was Robbie who tried to rape Lola. In fact, Briony later remembers it is a different guy who does the raping (a perfectly foppish, yet sinister Benedict Cumberbatch)(who, near the end, marries Lola). Since Briony couldn’t have Robbie, no one could have Robbie.
She (played masterfully by Vanessa Redgrave as the older writer Briony) writes the book to give them the life and happiness they deserved.
“I like to think that it isn’t a weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to untie them at the end. I gave them happiness, but I was not so self-serving as to let them forgive me.”
What really happened is that Robbie died the day before the evacuation at Dunkirk, and Cecilia died from a German bomb on her subway station/bomb shelter. And then I remember that these characters have been made real in my mind because of the excellence of the writer. It didn’t really happen. But how could they NOT have existed – it turned all so real in my head. Well done, writer, well done.
All these tears, mostly mine, over a made-up story about the rich English. Isn’t that the essence of storytelling?