Atonement is a brilliant novel. Ian McEwan performs literary magic playing with appearance and reality. But he also probes character and morality and ends with an expose of how the law can hinder justice.
Even when Briony Trallis realises who the perpetrator is of the crime she witnessed as a girl, she cannot expose him for fear of legal action. He is rich and powerful, quick to sue anyone who casts a slur on him.
Though a successful author, Briony knows her book about him will not be published in her lifetime.
Even if he dies, she could still be sued by his wife. For she was the girl he raped and yet she let an innocent man go to prison, falsely implicated for the crime. A crime for which Briony must share the blame, for it was she mistook who the culprit was and gave the evidence that sent an innocent man to prison.
Young Robbie Turner cannot convince the authorities he is innocent. Though an Oxford graduate, he is still the housekeeper’s son while Briony, only 13, is his mother’s rich, influential employer’s daughter. Her evidence counts more than his, but she in turn is powerless against someone richer and more influential than her.
I know this is not how one reads the novel, which is far more rich and complex to be read as a tract on class war. But the tensions and inequities are there, plainly stated in the novel.
Atonement is that rare novel, mixing romance, appearance and reality and social commentary in a gripping story as murky as a political drama. There are the starcrossed lovers who helped the book become a Hollywwood blockbuster. But not having seen the movie, I consider the story to be essentially about Briony. And that is what makes it so complex, for she is no angel — far from it. We start by being amused and impressed by her precocity and literary aspirations only to be horrified by the damage she does when she imagines Robbie to be a sex maniac. Her power of imagination which makes her a budding writer also helps to send an innocent man to prison.