I like books that make me think and this one certainly does, however I don’t like a lot of description and this book has lots. As I was reading I was reminded of the Go Between by L. P. Hartley which was written in a similar context. Later I was interested to read that Ian McEwan reported being influenced by this book.
The story begins with McEwan going to great lengthen to show us that Briony is an overly imaginative thirteen-year-old. Over the course of a day Briony witnesses several incidents between her sister, Cecilia and Robbie the boy next door, and comes to childish conclusions about his behaviour. Later in the evening she accuses Robbie of a crime he doesn’t commit. Her parents should have taken more responsibility and explained that she was young and too given to flights of fantasy to be taken seriously. Furthermore it was clear that she had formed the wrong impression of Robbie earlier in the day and the moonless night made her accusations unsubstantiated. Unfortunately none of this was considered. The first half of the book cover the afternoon and evening when these events take place.
Part two of the book is set five years later during World War II. Robbie is serving in the British forces and gets separate from his unit. He makes his way to Dunkirk. Part three is Briony’s war time experience as a nurse in London. By this time Briony is painfully aware of the mistake she has made and tries to atone for it. These parts of the book give a vivid picture of the horrors of war.
The last section of about 20 pages is written from Briony’s point of view as she looks back over her life. I didn’t like this section and it could have easily been omitted as it adds little valuable information. In two sentences we are told Briony married but nothing further. We are left to assume she didn’t have children.
Late in the book Briony asks, “What sense or hope or satisfaction could a reader draw from such an account? (that is, if she’d given her story a truthful ending) … I couldn’t do it to them (the readers)” (p. 371) and yet Ian McEwan, does it to us, his readers. He ends the book with a big dose of reality as if we are little children in need of cod liver oil. By adding this last section, he gives us the ‘true’ account without sense or hope or satisfaction. I think it is mean to tell readers how to finish a novel in an unsatisfactorily manner and then to do it.
This last section aside, it was an interesting story, but not sure I’d read another of McEwan when he appears to disrespect his readers.