Posted by: Matt | May 21, 2007

Review of Atonement

AtonementBriony, a young English girl, reads a note intended for her older sister, witnesses an encounter which she wrongly interprets, and makes a choice which will change the lives of her and her family. I don’t dare say much more about the plot. Only that it was not what I expected.

Atonement, by Ian McEwan, is wonderfully written. There are shifts, changes, to help the reader understand. But only when completed does the reader fully understand. Only then does the force of the narrative strike.  It is love, tragedy, sorrow, regret, hope.  It is certainly a novel that must be taken as a whole. The reader grows, ages with the characters, feels the result of independent actions and words.

The story seems to move slowly, but without dragging on. And it is soon over. Much of the writing does not seem to push the plot forward, yet it does not seem forced or unnecessary. Everything has a purpose, to flesh out the characters, to give them their chance at atonement. It may sound like a book of contradictions, it is difficult to explain.

This is a story which drew me in; in the end caused me to hold my breath, plead with the characters to speak, to listen, to act. I didn’t intend on finishing the book last night, but had no choice as I approached the end. This is my first experience with Ian McEwan, I’m looking forward to reading more.

Rating: 4.5

One more thing, I normally don’t like book covers that have photographs of people, but for some reason it works here.



  1. Atonement was my first McEwan too (and so far my only) but I look forward to more. I found it hard to breath through most of this book with Briony’s misunderstanding casuing so much heartache.

  2. I’ve heard so many things about McEwan….both good and bad. But for some reason I have never read any of his books!! Go Figure. It looks like Atonement will have to be the first!

  3. Stefanie – Yes, as soon as the misunderstanding arose my perspective on the book completely changed.

    Stephanie – His books have had quite varying reviews. I really did enjoy Atonement, hope you do too! I’m thinking of reading Saturday or Enduring Love next.

  4. I really liked Atonement, I’m glad it drew you in. I like how you say you held your breath near the end–I remember feeling that way, too. I also liked Saturday, which I read after Atonement, but it is a very different style of book. I’d be interested to hear what you think…

  5. Your review has made me regret giving away my unread copy of Atonement . I agree with you on the cover – it has a melancholic feel which I think attracted me to the book. For some reason, it sat on my shelf unread and I gave it to someone keen on reading it.

  6. Gentle Reader – McEwan’s books all seem to be quite different, at least that’s the idea I get from reading the synopses.

    Literary Acquisitionist – I resisted reading it for a long time as well, but I kept hearing such good things that I decided to pick it put.

  7. I liked this book a lot, too. It’s actually my LEAST favorite McEwan book (of those I’ve read so far) but still wonderful.

  8. My book club had this on slate to read last year but the person who selected it, while mentioning that she very much enjoyed it, hesistated to recommend it because of its “darkness.” I skipped reading it on the side as a result. I’ve seen two reviews of it through the Saturday Review of Books this week and I’m wondering if you found it particularly dark in nature? Both blogs were somewhat vague on that point. ??

  9. Dewey – I look forward to reading more of his novels.

    Carrie – I don’t think I would describe the book as dark. But then I also enjoy books that most people find depressing. I would say it is tragic and sad, but I didn’t really feel it was overwhelmingly so. Hope that helps!

  10. Great review, Matt. I read this one recently also and was quite taken in by it. I definitely plan to read more by Ian McEwan in the future.

  11. Thanks for the review. I finished Atonement only last night (at around 1am – I was determined to get to the end). I found it a bit slow to start off with, but soon warmed to the narrative. I can understand how maddening Briony can be to many people, and yet at the same time I was really impressed with how well McEwan captured this girl. I could easily imagine myself in the shoes of this quiet, yet earnest girl on the cusp of growing up, and the shuttered view of the situation that plays out.

    It’ll be interesting to see how the film turns out; from the trailer it looks to be an adaptation close to the original; then again, how often do trailers exaggerate!

  12. […] hesitant to say further about the plot, and you may wish to consider the nicely succinct review at A Variety of Words. What I found when initially researching this book, was that I could find no neat summation of the […]

  13. Literary Feline – Thank you! Sounds like a lot of people enjoyed Atonement, and plan on reading more or have read more Ian McEwan.

    Siew Cooper – I had no idea there was a film adaptation of this book. Starring Keira Knightley no less!

  14. I’ll be in the minority and say I didn’t really care much for this book. I did enjoy the war scenes, though, and that is something I’m usually not interested in.

  15. […] I recently talked to Matt from A Variety of Words about Atonement by Ian McEwan, winner of the 2002 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and a book I enjoyed myself. You may also be interested in reading Matt’s review of this novel. […]

  16. I loved Atonement but I think Enduring Love was even better. I will say that I didn’t really care for Amsterdam…other than that I am a huge McEwan fan. On Chesil Beach comes out tomorrow!!!

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