ATONEMENT: A Book Review and a Question

For the past month I've been reading the book, ATONEMENT by Ian McEwan , finding it rather dry and somehow uninviting, as if the book itself wanted to keep me at a distance. And then, suddenly some 290 pages into it, it comes at me from behind, grabs me and shakes me to my core.

It is war time, the Second World War and it is England. Briony has up to this point, been a rather shallow, immature child, though with some talent for writing. Her writing has sustained her emotional well being. Or has it? The war finds Briony as a young adult of 18 years. Adulthood itself does not necessarily bring with it maturity, yet, when accompanied by the raveges of war, can maturity be far behind?

For all the many pages that I read, I could not understand why this book was entitled, ATONEMENT? For 269 pages I could find no answer. It may just as well have been called, Boring England. And then, some 290 pages into the book, I began to understand. When Briony begins to recognize that she has not only seen sorrow, but has been its cause, then it becomes apparent that there may be something here worthy of atonement. Briony sees that she and her actions and lack of action caused near total destrucion of two lives, that of her sister, Cecilia and Cecilia's lover, Robbie. There is still the question of atonement. Can one, on one's own, make oneself atone? Or does life itself have to turn around and present the opportunity?

Briony makes a choice to become a kind of nurse's apprentice in her stepping up to serve in the war effort. She can not possibly have known what she would see and experience. She comes face-to-face with the after effects of war, with virtual hell on earth. One can have a hangnail and lament over it for days on end, thinking it to be the most annoying and painful affliction. In war time, you no longer have that luxury; the hang nail becomes the entire foot which is cut off, while the bone protrudes. There are things the human being is not meant to see. There are sights and sounds and smells that could only be called horrific, disgusting, unbearable..."the sticky sour odor of fresh blood, the stink of gangrene, a leg that is black and soft, like an overripe banana,...seeing through bloody cartilage"...things that should make your legs weak and unable to hold you up...."excruciating pain witnessed...seeing a face, the resemblance to the cutaway model they use in anatomy classes, a face in ruin, crimson and raw, seeing through a missing cheek to the upper and lower molars and the exposed muscles around the eye socket...so intimate, and never intended to be seen"..... Yet, it was, all this and more. that Briony saw, smelled, touched and experienced. Was this Briony's atonement, this level of pain and suffering in exchange for atonement? The question can be asked, does it takes these unspeakable horrors of war to bring a person to where she/he is worthy of atonement? I ask you.


guile said...

i read atonement two years ago.. such a powerful piece of literature..

Diane S. said...

This isn't an easy question you pose. But I think - and this is just my opinion - that coming to a place in one's soul where one sees the need to make atonement and is willing to do so, qualifies one to make atonement. In whatever small way on can.

There are many things that can never be "undone". But one can resolve to never do them again, try to minimize the bad effects of having done them, and - most of all - one can grow from the self reflection which brought one to a place of wishing to make atonement.

Sherril said...

Diane and Guile,
Thanks for your comments. The book as I read it was not so powerful, but like the movie, Brokeback Mountain, the more I thought about it, the more powerful it became.