Review: Atonement by Ian McEwan

Movie book cover of Atonement by Ian McEwan

After I finished reading Atonement, I sent out wary feelers to my Reading Friends to see if I was the only one who felt this way. Apparently I am.

Warining for very strong language below… taken straight from the book, I might add.

Plot summary:

On the hottest day of the summer of 1934,
thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis sees her sister Cecilia strip off her
clothes and plunge into the fountain in the garden of their country
house. Watching her is Robbie Turner, her childhood friend who, like
Cecilia, has recently come down from Cambridge.

By the
end of that day, the lives of all three will have been changed for ever.
Robbie and Cecilia will have crossed a boundary they had not even
imagined at its start, and will have become victims of the younger
girl’s imagination. Briony will have witnessed mysteries, and committed a
crime for which she will spend the rest of her life trying to atone.

As it turns out, I had absolutely zero idea what this book was actually about before I started reading it. I was expecting a reasonably generic, ‘coming of age,’ family saga, but I watched the film trailer when I was a quarter of the way through the book and appaaaaaaaaarently not. There’s lots of drama. And also children that can’t act, but that’s (almost) beside the point. 

I found Atonement to be surprisingly accessible when I had expected it to be dry and a little dull. The prose was fine, if a little purple, but unfortunately it just can’t compensate for the sheer awfulness that is the rest of the book.

The main problem with this book lies with Briony, the protagonist. I would normally despise her and have a little rant about how awful she is, but I actually have no feelings about her. Do you know why? Because she is completely unbelievable as a character. Firstly, no eleven year old speaks like that. Even adults don’t philosophise as pretentiously as she does.

She raised one hand and flexed its fingers and wondered, as she had
sometimes before, how this thing, this machine for gripping, this fleshy
spider at the end of her arm, came to be hers, entirely at her command.
Or did it have some little life of its own? She bent her finger and
straightened it. The mystery was in the instant before it moved, the
dividing moment between not moving and moving, when her intention took
effect. It was like a wave breaking. If she could only find herself at
the crest, she thought, she might find the secret of herself, that part
of her that was really in charge.

Oh my God, shut up. Does it sound like an eleven year old came up with that? Anyway, secondly, her actions make no sense. I understand she was young and naive and all that, but the reasonings given for her are silly and unrealistic. I’ve never read such a narcissistic, self-important character – I understand the need for flawed characters, but this is too far and therefore I can’t take it/her seriously. The pretentious, grandiose ramblings of a learned philosopher professor just don’t fit with her OTT naivety.

Her mother was forty-six, dispiritingly old. One day she would die. There would be a funeral in the village at which Briony’s dignified reticence would hint at the vastness of her sorrow. As her friends came up to murmur their condolences they would feel awed by the scale of her tragedy. She saw herself standing alone in a great arena, within a towering colosseum, watched not only by all the people she knew, but all those she would ever know, the whole cast of her life, assembled to love her in her loss.

ARRRGH. But even now, I’m not annoyed with Briony – I’m annoyed with the writing. Sometimes it’s just bewildering. At one point, it says, ‘He caught a whiff of underarm perspiration, which put him in mind of freshly cut grass.’ Hmm? Sweat reminds you of grass. Well, alrighty then.

The timeline is very jumpy, discussing her feelings throughout the trial before anything even remotely relevant has happened. This can work in some novels, but here it didn’t particularly help that I didn’t care what her feelings were.

I’m not usually a fan of soldiers-in-the-trenches descriptions so I might be a little biased, but I don’t understand the purpose of Part Two. It contributed nothing to the plot as it didn’t make a blind bit of difference whether anybody went off to war or not. Book Three would have been exactly the same regardless so it just seemed like a dreary piece of filler fiction.

I also don’t like the ending, but I doubt that will come as a massive surprise to you at this point. There’s no conclusion and no answers – what did she decide to do? Is the issue resolved? What happened? I was also disappointed In Briony during the epilogue – I had somewhat higher hopes for her, but they were eventually dashed against the Rocks of Unbelievability.

I aware and have always been aware that Atonement was written and published 2001, and yet I can’t get it out of my head that this is a classic book from the 1940s or thereabouts. Naturally then, it shocks me when it frequently uses words like ‘cunt,’ but I think it’s meant to shock readers which automatically irritates me. It’s cheap.  

So this is obviously a fairly neutal review. Bet you’re amazed at how impartial and unbiased I am. I do have to admit that Atonement has stayed with me during the month between reading it and writing this review, but not in a good way. If Briony had been slightly less… well, we won’t go into that again, but if she had been written better and Part Two had a purpose, it could have been an interesting the novel. The premise had promise (ooh. That’s my new favourite phrase) but it’s just so over-the-top that I couldn’t take it seriously.

Read an infinitely more positive review of Atonement at Book Addicted Blonde. 


  1. I was not a fan of McEwan after reading Cement Garden. I found his writing overly flowerly and full of pathetic attempts to shock – it felt very faux literary if you know what I mean? I got a full 3 pages into this book before giving up, never saw the film either. Glad to know I didn't miss much!

    1. admin says:

      I think 'faux literary' is possibly the best possible term for it that I've ever seen. It tries way too hard in every way – tries to shock, tries to sound impressive, tries to have an impace… ugh, no.

      No, you don't miss much. I won't be picking up another of his books again.

  2. Ellie says:

    ROBBIE AND CECILIA 4EVA. That is all. 😛

  3. Laura says:

    I liked Atonement fine when I read it (I was on holiday at the time, so more inclined to like stuff haha) but I've read another McEwan since then and haaaaated it- so I have no intention to re-read this, but I'm sticking with I liked it fine haha

  4. I enjoyed the first section of Atonement, when they're trying to put on a play, but once the main story started, I really didn't care for it at all. I think I found it a bit predictable (not the end twist, but most of what led up to it,) and I felt like McEwan's prose was hitting me over the head by saying "Look how clever and literary I am!" I prefer books to be more subtly and modestly clever.

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