This is the story of a young teen Briony Tallis, her older sister Cecilia, the housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner, and how the actions of one day changed the rest of their lives.
This is a bit of a hard one to summarize without giving away important plot points. He does some very interesting things with plot structure in this, and a lot of the suspense in the novel is waiting to see what happens and how it plays out. The main crime is telegraphed quite far in advance, but exactly what happens and what the repercussions will be is what’s really interesting.
The novel begins on the Tallis family estate in the summer of 1934. Nearly everyone in the family is home, or arriving shortly, and they’re to all have dinner together that night. The first third of the novel is quite slow, as we’re introduced to the characters and the scene is set, but I was still really enjoying his writing. I knew a horrible thing was about to happen that night, and while I obviously wouldn’t wish that upon anyone, I did find myself thinking ‘okay, let’s get on with it already’, which felt a little wrong.
In the rest of the book, time keeps jumping ahead to show what has happened to those involved. I often find myself feeling very disconnected and uninterested when time shifts like that in a novel, but again he managed to keep my interest. Whenever I felt like I knew where the story was going, I was always left surprised. McEwan does a great job of toying with your emotions in this, especially when it comes to how you feel about each character. You love them, you hate them, you like them again – he manages to do what George R.R. Martin does so well, but in a single four-hundred page novel.
The ending of this novel really messes with your mind a bit. It’s revealed that what you just read was actually written by Briony, and that events may have played out a bit differently than she wrote, that Cecilia and Robbie never met again.
At first I felt a bit cheated by this. It struck me as a little ‘and then I woke up, and it was all a dream’ for my liking, but then it did grow on me. Not everything has a happy ending, and actions have life-long consequences, and the fact that she felt compelled to rewrite history only highlighted her remorse.
So, I’ve decided to forgive Ian McEwan.
I really enjoyed this. The subject matter is pretty heavy, and it was written in a way that could have easily turned hacky in another author’s hands, but it’s handled very well here. This won the 2001 Man Booker Prize, and while I don’t normally keep up with literary prizes, I remember it being mentioned in the literature course I was taking in university at the time. I’ve had it filed away in the back of my mind to read since. It only took me a decade and a half, not bad.