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12 June 2014

Ian McEwan
Jonathan Cape
Publication Date
novel, family saga


We meet 13-year-old Briony Tallis in the summer of 1935, as she attempts to stage a production of her new drama The Trials of Arabella to welcome home her elder, idolised brother Leon. But she soon discovers that her cousins, the glamorous Lola and the twin boys Jackson and Pierrot, aren't up to the task, and directorial ambitions are abandoned as more interesting preoccupations come onto the scene. The charlady's son Robbie Turner appears to be forcing Briony's sister Cecilia to strip in the Fountain and sends her obscene letters; Leon has brought home a dim chocolate magnate keen for a war to promote his new "Army Amo" bar; and upstairs Briony's migraine-stricken mother Emily keeps tabs on the house from her bed. Soon, secrets emerge that change the lives of everyone present...

My Review

The book is separated in 3 parts plus a post-script. 

Part 1 goes back to the very hot summer of 1935. 13 year old Briony Tallis and her family live on a Surrey country estate. Briony, youngest sibling and somewhat neglected by her parents, clearly has a lot of imagination and can't imagine being anything else but being writer. On this hot summer day, family and friends gather at the country estate - in indeed the whole of the lengthy first chapter will cover only this one day - a day though which will change lives forever. Briony's elder sister Cecilia visits from University, and also family friend Robbie Turner. Robbie is the impoverished son of a chamber lady and Mr Tallis, Briony and Cecelia's father, has financed Robbie's studies.

Briony than witnesses a bit of sexual tension between Cecelia and Robbie, and her imagination runs wild and she misinterprets Robbie's intentions. Robbie has realised that he has feelings for Cecilia and asks Briony if she could deliver a letter to Cecelia from him. Unfortunately, he gives her an earlier version of the letter which is a bit sexually explicit - a later version is edited and this was the one meant for Cecilia. Briony reads the letter and is shocked. She later witnesses Cecilia and Robbie in a sexually compromising position in the library and she can only assume in her mind that Cecilia is getting raped by Robbie the monster. Events take a tragic turn when Lola, a cousin, is later that night found raped in the woods surrounding the estate, and cannot recall her assailant. Briony is sure that it must have been Robbie. Though he protests his innocence in front of the police, he gets taken away. 

So, how does the story continue for Cecilia and Robbie? In the second chapter, we learn that Robbie has spend a few years in prison and is now being released on the premise that he will go to the front as soldier - World War 2 is now is in full swing. Cecilia has cut off all contact with her family and stood by Robbie, but couldn't visit him whilst in prison.  This chapter than contains very vidid descriptions of what the soldiers faced, and Robbie ends up in Dunkirk before the Dunkirk Evacuation in 1940. 

In the third chapter we learn about Briony - she rejects university and has become a nurse, she still writes. She will try to reconcile with Cecilia and Robbie. 

The ending of this book - effectively the post-scrip - took me completely by surprise, I couldn't believe what I was reading and it touched me very deeply. I put the book away, and the story went around and around in my head. I don't want to give anything away, only so much that I love this kind of ending which really shocked me and came very unexpected.

Briony is the main character in the book, and her character is the one who is drawn best. Is it realistic what happened that day in Summer 1935, with Briony's imagination running wild? I think it well can be - being 13, Briony is at an age where she just starts to discover sexuality and it is entirely possibly that she started to obsess about Robbie being a sexual monster. Obviously, her family history needs to be considered. I wished to have known a bit more a bout Cecilia. Despite Robbie being completely innocent, I didn't really warm to him. 

Apart from the ending, one of the scenes which will stay with me is the descriptions of the war and what the soldiers had to face. This is where, in my opinion, fiction books can play such an important part as it teaches more about those events than any history books with all its facts can ever do. 

About the author:  

Ian McEwan is a critically acclaimed author of short stories and novels for adults, as well as The Daydreamer, a children's novel illustrated by Anthony Browne. His first published work, a collection of short stories, First Love, Last Rites, won the Somerset Maugham Award. His novels include The Child in Time, which won the 1987 Whitbread Novel of the Year Award, The Cement Garden, Enduring Love, Amsterdam, which won the 1998 Booker Prize, Atonement, Saturday and On Chesil Beach.