‘Atonement’ is a meta fiction novel written by Ian McEwan, published in 2001 and shortlisted for the 2001 Booker Prize for fiction and James Tait Black Memorial Prize the 2001 and the 2001 Whitbread Novel Award, won the 2002 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction, the 2002 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, the 2002 WH Smith Literary Award, the 2002 Boeke Prize and the 2004 Santiago Prize for the European Novel.
‘Atonement’ received great acclaim by virtue of it being a primary text responsible for the advent of the modern novel or accurately, ‘The 21st Century Novel’, Times included the novel in its top 100 all time great novels’ list, and The Observer also added ‘Atonement’ to its top 100 greatest novels of all time, calling it ” a contemporary classic of mesmerising narrative conviction, and BBC ranked the novel on no. 12, on its top 100 novels of British literature according to the perspective of critics who live outside the UK.
The novel follows the lives of the protagonist Briony Tallis, Cecilia Tallis, and Robbie Turner, and the premise goes as such, 13 year old Briony Tallis wishes to be a writer, she writes stories and plays as well, first of them being Tales of Arabella, one afternoon she sees Robbie Turner and her sister near the fountain with a vase between them, and on that day Briony Tallis, due to her puerile instincts and imaginary escapades, commits a crime which will change the lives of all those around her and she will spend the rest of her life trying to atone.
The novel is divided into 3 parts, and starts from the summer of 1935 and ends at 1999. The novel showcases brilliantly thought out plot lines of the conflicts of family, conflicts of war, and the spiritual conflict within oneself.
To start off, as with every novel, the prose counts, many would argue with me that novels should have more substance rather than prose but I feel, prose gives vibrancy, vigour and freshness to enrich the plot of the novel, what one wishes to write is of equal importance as the question of how to write.
And in this specific novel, the prose is luxurious, gorgeous, clear, resounding, multi-layered, and strikingly masterful, the brilliance of the writing shines through simplicity, you rarely need to use a dictionary to find word meanings whilst reading, and the most complex situations are written with such ease and verve that one can visualise and smell the atmospheric intensity of the novel, where other novelists use technical and exuberant words to describe something and declare their writing as serious, McEwan does the opposite of it, and wins the game.
His writing style is a smorgasbord of the literary greats: his psychological insights and observations and the way he goes inside the minds of multiple characters is equal to George Eliot’s Middlemarch, his fine usage of language and sharp command on vocabulary is reminiscent of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, complexity of characters is comparable to Tolstoy’s War And Peace, the war scenes and the haunting imagery captures the heights of Great War novels such as Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks.
First and foremost, Atonement is not a single novel, it is many novellas compiled in one book which creates a unity between the time shifts and the character developments. It works superbly as a coming of age story, a war story, a recovery from trauma and retribution of guilt, and most stunningly, it is a novel which contemplates and meditates on the art of the novel form.
It deconstructs and constructs and reinvents the feel and texture of the many forms of the novel : first person, third person, omniscient, novellas and chapters in novels, self reflexive form and structure and creates a stunning master class on the act of writing and the life of the writer.
And with that, Ian McEwan gives birth to the 21st century novel, with his fecund prose, vivid and stark imagery, multiple switches in narrative, and a powerhouse of character work, and the spiritual reflection on the novel writing.
The novel takes you through all emotions, ranging from sadness, anger, imaginary escapades, childishness, adolescence, struggle, violence, spirituality and above all Atonement.
Lastly, I would say that ‘Atonement’ is the most dynamic contemporary novel I have read till now, and I hope Atonement does for Ian McEwan, what Gitanjali did for Tagore, that is win him the Nobel Prize in Literature.
“There did not have to be a moral. She need only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive. It wasn’t only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding, above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you. And only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they had an equal value. That was the only moral a story need have.”
– Ian McEwan, Atonement