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“The cost of oblivious daydreaming was always this moment of return, the realignment with what had been before and now seemed a little worse. ”
In brief, this story is about a 13-year old girl who makes a terrible misjudgement and destroys the lives of two people in the process. Several years later, can she atone for her sin? Or, is it too late to undo the damage?
This is the basic story, but there are so many layers to it, that it becomes very difficult to write a review without giving away crucial details about the plot.
13-year old Briony is a very imaginative little girl – an aspiring writer. She has written a play “The trails of Arabella” to welcome her brother, Leon, home. She had planned her soon to be arriving cousins to perform in her play. So, the cousins arrive, none-year old twins, Pierrot and Jackson, and their precocious fifteen year old siste. Rehearsals start in Talli’s nursery, but soon prove discouraging. Twins are restless and Lola sneakily takes over the lead role. Eventually, Briony calls it quits. Before that, though she witnesses a scene from the window. She sees her elder sister, Cecilia, undressing to her underclothes in front of Robbie Turner. Robbie is the son of tallis’s charlady. Briony’s dad has been s[sponsoring him since he won a scholarship to the same school the tallis children attended. Briony can’t hear her sister from the window but the pantomime shocks her. She decides the scene she had witnessed is sinister and that Robbie had somehow forced her sister to undress. She decide to toss of pinafores of childhood and be more like an adult but she still is sexually clueless which proves to be disastrous. Meanwhile, Robbie retreats to his room and realizes in frustration that he must no longer conceal his love for Cecilia, regardless of their recent argument by the fountain. After writing several drafts, including a rather crude sexual fantasy, he composes a confession of his love, rushes to the house, and asks Briony to deliver it to her sister. In her new role as Cecilia’s defender, Briony immediately opens the letter and finds the obscene fantasy that Robbie has mistakenly mailed! “Something irreducibly human, or male, threatened the order of their household,” McEwan writes, “and Briony knew that unless she helped her sister, they would all suffer.” At the coming-home party for her brother that evening, she keeps a close eye on the “sex maniac,” but Robbie and Cecilia are too caught up in their new romance to notice or care. McEwan’s knowledge of the inner workings of these characters is so piercing that you can’t help feeling sorry for them; only God should have such intimate knowledge.
The tragicomedy of Briony’s crisis peaks when two children disrupt the party by running away from home. For the adults, the dark search is made anxious by their proximity to the lake; for Briony, who knows what sort of fiend is among them, the situation couldn’t be more alarming. Gripped with terror but driven on by constant attention to the heroic story she’s composing, she creeps out to the island temple – an artificial temple built on an artificial island – and there interrupts a rape in progress.
She finds her 16-year-old cousin dishevelled and distraught. The rapist, surely Robbie, has darted into the night.
“I saw him,” she announces, creating in that moment a degree of certainty her story needs to reach its climax. And despite the darkness, despite her cousin’s lack of confirmation, despite a sprinkling of contradictory details, her narrative calcifies into rock-hard certainty that smashes several lives.
By the time World war ll has started, Robbie has spent 2–3 years in prison. He is then released on the condition of enlistment in the army to fight in war. Cecilia has trained and become a nurse. She cuts off all contact with her family because of the part they took in sending Robbie to jail. Robbie and Cecilia have only been in contact by letter, since she was not allowed to visit him in prison. Before Robbie has to go to war in France they meet once for half an hour during Cecilia’s lunch break. Their reunion starts awkwardly, but they share a kiss before leaving each other.
In France, the war is going badly and the army is retreating to Dunkirk. As the injured Robbie goes to the safe haven, he thinks about Cecilia and past events like teaching Briony how to swim and reflecting on Briony’s possible reasons for accusing him. His single meeting with Cecilia is the memory that keeps him walking, his only aim is seeing her again. At the end of part two, Robbie falls asleep in Dunkirk, one day before the evacuation.
Remorseful Briony has refused her place at Cambridge and instead is a trainee nurse in London I the same hospital in which her sister trained as a nurse. I think she’s punishing herself for the wrong she did to her sister and Robbie. She has realized the full extent of her mistake, and realizes it was Paul Marshall, Leon’s friend, whom she saw raping Lola. Briony still writes, although she does not pursue it with the same recklessness as she did as a child.
Briony attends the wedding of her cousin Lola and Paul Marshall before finally visiting Cecilia. Robbie is on leave from the army and Briony meets him unexpectedly at her sister’s. They both refuse to forgive Briony, who nonetheless tells them she will try and put things right. She promises to begin the legal procedures needed to exonerate Robbie, even though Paul Marshall will never be held responsible for his crime because of his marriage to Lola, the victim.
In the closing pages of “Atonement,” we’re left with Briony the novelist, “ I know there’s always a certain kind of reader who will be compelled to ask, but what really happened?..The problem has been this, how can a novelist achieve atonement when with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? Briony knows she will be forced yet again to see that what is torn in the flesh can’t be mended by stories. I in the end was left with a strong sense of bewilderment.