Truth. Lies. Love. Sex. Ian McEwan’s Atonement weaves a complicated tale of a family torn apart by deception. It begins by explaining the events of a single day at a wealthy English home in the 1930s, where 13-year-old Briony sees two events which shape her life forever. First, she sees her older sister Cecilia making love with her childhood friend, Robbie. Later, Briony sees her cousin Lola being raped. Briony is convinced that the rapist is Robbie, and her testimony sends him to jail. But five years later, in the midst of the Second World War, Briony is trying to atone for her mistake — a mistake that has haunted her ever since.
Truth and Lies
Atonement is full of lies and deceptions, even if the characters are not always aware of what they are doing. Briony knows she has seen something important, but she misunderstands what really happened, and her false version of events has devastating consequences. By the end of the novel, the reader is still left doubting Briony’s grasp on the truth. Can we ever know what is true?
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Briony sees two different kinds of sex on that day in the country: an act of love between two adults, and the rape of her cousin. But she interprets them both as attacks. It is not clear whether this is because she is too young to understand the difference, if she is simply jealous of her sister, or for some other reason. In the end, it does not matter: her accusation condemns Robbie to jail anyway.
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Five years after Robbie’s arrest, he attempts a reconciliation with Cecilia. But then the Second World War separates them again. Briony and Cecilia both train as nurses, while Robbie is stuck in Dunkirk, wounded and awaiting evacuation from France. There is nothing glorious or romanticised about the war in Atonement; it is painful, and dull, and it rips apart the lives of all it touches.
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There are no happy families in Atonement. The Tallis family never get over Robbie’s arrest; Cecilia cuts off contact with them, while Briony tries — and fails — to make up for her mistake. The novel also touches on class, as those born into wealthy families enjoy far more benefits from their privileged position in England in contrast with poorer families like Robbie’s.
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Briony wants to atone for the mistake she made as a teenager. First, she tries to contact Cecilia and Robbie, in order to finally tell the truth. Then she trains as a nurse to try to help wounded soldiers and do some good. Many years later, she writes the novel in order to finally put its events to rest. Does she ever succeed? And can the good things we do ever outweigh the bad?
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