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Shortlisted for the Booker Award, Atonement, by Ian McEwan, is an exquisite work of metafiction. In 1935, during an idyllic summer at her family’s English country estate, 13-year-old Briony Tallis indulges her lust for writing. She loves being able to rewrite reality:
She was on course now, and had found satisfaction on other levels; writing stories not only involved secrecy, it also gave her all the pleasures of miniaturisation. A world could be made in five pages, and one that was more pleasing than a model farm. The childhood of a spoiled prince could be framed within half a page, a moonlit dash through sleepy villages was one rhythmically emphatic sentence, falling in love could be achieved in a single word – a glance. The pages of a recently finished story seemed to vibrate in her hand with all the life they contained. Her passion for tidiness was also satisfied, for an unruly world could be made just so. A crisis in a heroine’s life could be made to coincide with hailstones, gales and thunder, whereas nuptials were generally blessed with good light and soft breezes. A love of order also shaped the principles of justice, with death and marriage the main engines of housekeeping, the former being set aside exclusively for the morally dubious, the latter a reward withheld until the final page.
writing real life as a piece of fiction
Because of her inexperience and unbridled imagination, Briony misinterprets a struggle she happens to see between her older sister Cecilia and the housekeeper’s son Robbie, who is a childhood friend of Cecilia’s. Two additional sexually charged events she encounters among family and houseguests drive her tension and imaginings into a fever force. She happily sends a rapist, who is actually innocent, to prison.
The book goes on to follow Robbie’s life in the war, and then Briony’s life as a nurse, and finally Briony as an old woman. But Briony has been the writer of the story all along, so now we must take a reckoning of what was true, what was imagined, whether she has truly acknowledged what she has done, and to what extent her act of atonement has succeeded.
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