I’m blown away, exhausted, and deeply completely satisfied once again by the intense narrative, exquisite prose, and deeply moving story within this novel. I dived into this wonderful book over the weekend with all the thrill of Cecelia diving into the fountain in her underwear to retrieve the broken vase knowing Robbie watched her, but not knowing her younger sister Briony did too; and it did not disappoint a second time around – in fact I think I can safely say I relished it more aware of the eventual outcome.
Absolutely brilliant, this is a great novelist at the top of his game and one of Mum’s books I’ll be keeping to read again one day, I hope. Mum has annotated twice inside the cover of this copy – ‘Crete 2003’ and again ‘Feb 08’. Clearly she felt the same, as it’s one of the ‘Already Read’ books that moved with her from a reasonably roomy family home into her absolutely fabulous and far lower maintenance flat in East London. But one with much less room for books – so Mum was very selective in her ‘Keepers’.
I’m sure many people have seen the movie with Keira Knightley as Cecelia, one of her best roles in my opinion, and James MacAvoy as Robbie Turner, the housekeepers son. It’s a great screen adaptation but as is usually the case, the book’s better. If you haven’t, here’s my as always hesitant to give too much of the game away synopsis!
This is a book in three parts. In the first, the longest, we are with the Tallis family on their Surrey estate over a couple of scorching hot summer days in the summer of 1935. Absent father Jack, almost absent for different reasons mother Emily, eldest daughter Cecilia home for the summer after finishing at Cambridge and uncertain of her future, youngest (afterthought) daughter the strange and introspective budding author thirteen year old Briony writing a play to be performed for the son of the house, Leon, who is down for the weekend with his chum, chocolate magnate Paul Marshall. The casting of Benedict Cumberbatch in this role for the screen adaptation was superb, I thought.
Now add to the hothouse atmosphere Robbie, son of the housekeeper who has grown up with the family and been to Cambridge at the same time as Cecilia reading literature but who has, after a summer working on the estate as a gardener like his vanished father, finally settled upon a career in medicine, which Jack Tallis has offered to help with. There is something very Du Maurier and not in a bad way about the scene setting.
Here in Queensland, it’s hot a lot of the time, but our homes are built to cope with it better, and we are used to it though even for us, it can be hideously oppressive at times. The excessive heat of that long ago summer weekend in Surrey is a central element in the book and described in such an expert manner that you’ll live and breathe it as you read.
This extremely skilful and successful sensory experience created with words alone is also cleverly referred back to in Part Two when Briony receives a rejection letter from a publisher commending her on her ‘descriptive passages’ in her ‘Atonement’ novella – the first draft of her ‘atonement’ book, the one she must write but that cannot be published until everyone involved in it is dead, and the story that this story is about. No, not a typo – it’s one of the things I loved most about the book. Brilliant on so many levels.
Two other things about Part One. At the end, agonising with the thirteen year old Briony on her decisions as she begins to see the magnitude of the consequences, yet she fears she cannot retract them. How does a male author in his thirties have such a comprehensive understanding of the crazy shit that can go on in a thirteen year old girls brain? How does anyone, least of all the thirteen year old girl involved? Is Mr McEwan astute enough a man to have actually listened to his wife or partner? I thought this part of the book one of the best things I’d ever read the first time I read it. I’m now even more convinced.
Part Two is Briony’s atonement. Part Three is what really happened. All three parts combine to make a novel that is more than deserving of reading more than once. Clever, absorbing and beautifully expressed. I have enjoyed this book immensely twice and I look forward to the third time.
Fabulous book. 100% recommend. It breaks my heart. Can’t possibly give it away though!