The novel Atonement is initially set in the English countryside prior to WWII. McEwan sets up the classic chaotic country house. It includes an ineffectual mother, an absent father, three cousins staying as their parents divorce, and the oldest son home for a visit with a friend. Briony is 13 at the time and constantly writing. McEwan captures a 13 year olds view of herself as the center of the universe perfectly.
Briony’s older sister, Cecilia, is home from college and trying to figure out why she’s having trouble getting along with Robbie. Robbie is the son of their cleaning lady and a friend since the age of 7. One of the things that McEwan does best is to describe feelings.
“This was what happened when they talked these days; one or the other was always in the wrong, trying to call back the last remark. There was no ease, no stability in the course of their conversations, no chance to relax. Instead, it was spikes, traps, and awkward turns that caused her to dislike herself almost as much as she disliked him.”
Cecilia and Robbie realize almost simultaneously that they are in love. They have one brief moment together before the events of that night unfold. Briony plays a role in separating them and the juxtaposition between the house in the countryside and Robbie fighting in the war is masterful. Robbie is involved in a horrific retreat from France and keeps flashing back to his former life.
“It seemed like another man’s life to him now. A dead civilization. First his own life ruined, then everybody else’s.”
I highly recommend Atonement and it is on my list of my favorite 10 novels. I don’t usually like reading about war, but the story here is so interesting the war scenes are worth it.