Wow, what a book! Yet another novel that has stayed on my shelves for far too long, partially because I was so intimidated by it and partially because of all the hype surrounding it a few years ago. As it turns out, I needn't have worried on either of those counts. It wasn't a difficult read at all, and the hype was entirely justified!
At its barest of bones, this is a book about two lovers and the girl who tears them apart. Cecilia Tallis, a rich young woman, and Robbie Turner, her charlady's son, have both recently returned to the Tallis estate from Cambridge University, where they have been studiously avoiding one another. It is only during the hot summer following their return that they realise how deep their feelings really are.
Waiting for them back home is Cecilia's younger sister. I have to admit, I hated Briony in the first half of the book. She reminded me of a young version of Barbara in Notes on a Scandal. Manipulative, naive, attention-seeking, self-obsessed and utterly destructive in her unswerving self-righteousness. Briony wants to be a writer and a grown-up, not necessarily in that order, and her imagination tends to run away with her. When a collection of bizarre encounters and Briony's overactive mind are thrown together during one frightening night, Robbie is arrested for a crime he didn't commit, and the Tallis family falls apart.
Moving on a few years, Robbie is fighting his way across France in a desperate attempt to get back to Cecilia; the love of his life is pouring out her devotion in her letters, waiting for him to return, and Briony is seeking to redeem herself by following in Cecilia's footsteps and training as a nurse. From the innocence and family atmosphere of the first half of the book, suddenly the reader is plunged into Robbie's terrifying trek towards the beaches of Dunkirk, and from there into Briony's horrific experiences in the hospital as the first soldiers are brought back from the retreat. Will Cecilia and Robbie be reunited? And will Briony ever manage to atone for what she did and finally set things to rights?
I cannot believe how much I underestimated this book. McEwan's writing is simply sublime. He keeps the pace steady, picking out tiny details and observations, exploring personal motives and flights of fancy, revisiting memories, and immersing the reader completely inside his characters' heads - yet I never felt impatient for things to speed up. It would have been so easy for chaotic moments in France and in the hospital to be flitted over and churned together into a frenzy, but their impact would have been halved. There is no escape from the thoughts, the joys, the horrors, the beautiful and haunting things that McEwan wants us to see. With a single sentence he can rip the rug out from under the complacent reader, then with a beautiful description encourage us to regroup and reflect once more. As with so many books in which I become deeply attached to and emotionally invested in each and every character, I had a feeling I was going to be a bit tearful by the end, and I was right - I spent fifteen minutes sobbing into my pillow!
I could go on and on, but instead I'll stop here and just say... please read it. You will recognise yourself in parts, and recoil from others; you will be educated and shocked; you will feel elation and joy but also be plunged into sadness and anger. It is an epic and exquisite rollercoaster, and I am so glad I finally chose to stop procrastinating and experience it for myself!
Source: I bought this book from a charity shop.