After seeing Joe Wright’s cinematic adaptation of ‘Atonement’ (2007) when I was younger, being a big fan of both James McAvoy and Keira Knightley, I was enamoured. The cast, the cinematic landscaping, costume and make-up, the mise-en-scène in general: I thought it was perfection, and arguably this was one of the films that inspired my love for cinema and cinematic adaptations of novels. I noticed recently that it had been uploaded to Netflix and couldn’t help indulging in another watch, it felt strange to watch a young Saoirse Ronan take on the role of Briony after becoming a big fan of hers after seeing more of her recent films such as ‘Brooklyn’ (2015), and was pleased and not at all surprised to see that she was nominated for an Academy Award in the category for Best Supporting Actress. In short, the film is one of my favourites and I would recommend it to anybody interested in historical female subjectivities, British history as a whole or skilful and concentrated use of location and setting as a cinematic technique.
On the contrary, after seeing Wright’s adaptation as an early teen, I had attempted to read Ian McEwan’s novel; inevitably I wanted to draw the contrasts and the similarities and to understand and analyse the book that inspired the cinema. Unfortunately, after around 30 pages, I put the book down. I found it difficult to engage with, I wasn’t lost in 1935 England as I was with the film, the characters inspired no feeling in me and in all, I wasn’t motivated to continue with McEwan’s novel. I largely now attribute this to my age, as an early teen I was engaging in teen literature along with some of the classics, but I’m not sure I could’ve appreciated McEwan’s writing style or understood some of the literary techniques that he employs. Now, as a 23 year old, much more educated woman, I took on the challenge once more of picking up Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’, and I did not regret it…
Admittedly, the first 100 pages of the book may have been tougher than the remainder. The book is separated into three parts, and the first one has the slowest version of events. In fact, you almost feel as though nothing of substance has really happened. But when you gain understanding that this is a literary technique employed by McEwan to represent how one small action, that of Briony, can escalate the events of the whole novel, you begin to appreciate the varying speeds of progression within the novel as a whole. Briony’s running away with Robbie’s letter, in which he includes the crude use of the word ‘cunt,’ her latching onto Lola’s insecurity and uncertainty and accusing Robbie of being a ‘maniac,’ leads onto both part two and part three of the book, whereby Robbie is imprisoned, World War II begins and Cecilia becomes a trainee nurse in London, a path which Briony also follows. Thus McEwan, by using varying modes and speeds of progression, represents the escalation of events and creates a book which becomes impossible to put down, even giving a nod toward the theory of The Butterfly Effect.
For me, I became largely attached to the characters. Robbie took on a level of softness in my eyes, I found him to be warm yet stoic and extremely admirable. His story was the one in the novel that I most wanted to follow. Cecelia, for me, is a character of contrasts, of binaries that make up a complex character, yet a character of clarity. Strong willed yet messy, determined and stoic, just like Robbie. Warm, yet cold. One of my favourite parts of the novel is during the first section, whereby Cecelia is dressing for dinner, a dinner which Robbie is due to attend. Her uncertainty regarding her outfit, how she looks, the aura and character which she personifies, this doubtfulness contrasts against the strong willed nature we have previously experienced, especially in her address of Briony and her cousins. As for Briony, I have read many a review stating that by the end of the novel, a certain level of sympathy and understanding for Briony was invoked. Throughout the course of the novel, I only felt a level of disdain and disappointment for Briony, arguably due to my investment in Robbie and Cecelia’s relationship. But it is McEwan’s character development and the complexities within these characters that is created which makes the book so literarily perfect and so beautifully constructed.
However, my favourite part of this novel and yet the most controversial, is the ambiguity of the ending. I have seen many reviews speculating on the the ending – some writers argue that in fact, Robbie died in Dunkirk and Cecelia died in Balham Underground station, and that neither survived the war, as Briony writes in the post-script of the book. Others debate over the fact that in actuality, as depicted in Part Three of the novel, both characters survived the war and went on to live happy lives together after so many years of separation. I couldn’t say that I came to such a definite conclusion, but I think that this is the beauty of the novel – it allows you to make your own judgements on the plot, as it does with the characters, and through this use of ambiguity, McEwan has created a novel that stays with you for not only days, but weeks after putting it down. ‘Atonement’ is now back on my bookshelf, amongst some of my other favourite novels, but I am almost certain that in years to come I will pick it up again and indulge once more.