"Why Atonement is my favourite book"

With our treasured libraries still closed, we are keeping in touch with our librarians across the county by asking them about their favourite books.

Thursday, 4th June 2020, 10:45 am
Susan Whitington
Susan Whitington

This week, Susan Whitington, library assistant at Midhurst Library, tells us why Atonement by Ian McEwan is her choice

“I think Ian McEwan is a great writer. He seems to be able to create settings and characters that are completely convincing. His writing is often very beautiful, but you know there will always be some shocks, both in the plot and the structure – things are often not quite what they seem.

“Atonement starts on a particular day shortly before the start of the Second World War in what seems to be a fairly grand country house. It’s the hottest day imaginable and we meet the various occupants of the house individually; the family members, the staff and guests, all conscious of their rank in the hierarchy of the house. In particular, we follow the sisters Cecilia and Briony, the former a recent graduate and the latter a thirteen-year-old aspiring playwright and the brilliant Robbie, son of the housekeeper and also recently graduated from Cambridge and contemplating a life in medicine or some other branch of academia. We feel their response to the oppressive heat of the day as they go about their duties and occupations. In fact, this day takes up the whole of part one, more than half the book. It feels languid and lethargic, almost leisurely. As it progresses, secrets, prejudices and passions begin to be revealed. It culminates in a terrible event, shocking in itself, but compounded by the misunderstanding and subsequent behaviour of Briony, leading to terrible consequences for the innocent Robbie.

“We are then plunged into the horrors of war as we travel with Robbie, now a soldier as he and some companions struggle through the French countryside towards Dunkirk. No medical career for him then. This is such a change from the earlier section that it feels like a completely different book, but still brilliantly realised and often viscerally described.

“Later, we catch up with Cecilia and Briony, both nursing but estranged and dislocated, as are all their family, by the events of the first part of the book. Briony is acutely aware of her grievous error and wishes to atone for her actions. She thinks she has a way to do this. I don’t really want to say any more because this is where McEwan’s famous metanarrative starts to mess with your head.

“Atonement is a serious and sometimes gruelling read, so it’s not something I would pick up every summer, but I think I’ve read it twice. I remember my first reading of the book partly took place on a long-distance flight. This was perfect for allowing myself to become completely immersed in the story and, perhaps, our current situation might be a good time for an engrossing read like this. I can recall the extraordinary transition from mannered English country house to full-blown action war story. The richness of the writing and the intimacy I felt to the characters has stayed with me and led to a bit of a McEwan habit. He’s written lots of great books. Some of my other favourites are Enduring Love and The Innocent, but Atonement is by far my top read of his.

“Atonement was made into a film in 2007, starring, amongst others, Keira Knightly, Saoirse Ronan and James McAvoy and directed by Joe Wright. I think it’s one of those rare film adaptations that hit the spot perfectly.”

Following the latest advice in relation to COVID-19, all West Sussex Libraries are closed until further notice, but they’ve introduced a virtual hub of your local library’s online services, all accessible from home. Check out the latest offerings via: https://arena.westsussex.gov.uk/web/arena/currentoffer

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