I came to this book after having seen the film adaptation with Keira Knightley and James McAvoy, and am rather glad I did so. It’s actually a very faithful adaptation, except for a few minor details, and except for the very last part of the book – the same information is told, but in a different way. I’m going to try not to be too spoilery, but apologies if there is too much information.
The first part of the book, and it’s at least half of the novel, is set on a single day at the country house belonging to the Tallis family. Present on that day is mother Emily (perpetual sufferer of debilitating migraines), daughter Cecilia, back home from Cambridge, and younger daughter Briony, an aspiring writer, who has just written a play, The Trials of Arabella, to be performed for her brother Leon, due to arrive that afternoon. Also present are the “cousins from the north”, Lola Quincey and her younger twin brothers, Jackson and Pierrot, whose mother (Emily’s younger sister) has recently left their father, and whose family life is upset and insecure, to say the least. There is Robbie Turner, son of the Tallises’ former gardener, whose education has been paid for by Jack Tallis (absent throughout the novel in London upon important ministerial business), and who, like Cecilia, has recently come down from Cambridge. And lastly, but no means least, are the servants – Betty and Hardman and Danny Hardman, and Robbie’s mother.
During that long, hot day in 1935, Briony sees a brief interlude between her sister and Robbie, and later takes delivery of a note for Cecilia, which, when she reads it, confirms her impression that Robbie is a sex maniac, and that Cecilia needs to be protected from him. However, the note is a catalyst which clarifies and re-defines the recently rather awkward and tense relationship between Robbie and Cecilia, and they declare their love. After dinner, attended by the Tallises, Robbie, the visiting cousins, and Leon’s visiting friend, Paul Marshall, tensions mount, particularly focussed on Lola and Briony. The twins run away, and the party divides to search for them. While searching, Briony comes upon a man raping Lola: his height and her previous suspicions lead Briony to conclude that this was Robbie, and so she states this very clearly and categorically to the police. Lola never contradicts the story, saying that it was dark, and that she couldn’t see. Robbie returns to the house in the early dawn with the twins but is arrested by the police: only Cecilia and his mother believe that he did not attack Lola.
The next part of the story is set during the war, during the British retreat from France to Dunkirk. Robbie and his two companions – both corporals, but content to follow his lead as if he was an officer – trudge wearily and determinedly towards Dunkirk, finally arriving in chaos and squalor. Robbie is driven onwards by his love for Cecilia, and her letters.
Then we follow Briony as she trains as a nurse at St Thomas’s Hospital, and sees horrors of wounded men as the evacuated reach London. She has come to realise that she has done Robbie (and her sister) an unspeakable wrong, and tries to make amends.
The last part follows Briony as a successful author, going to a family reunion to celebrate her birthday, and in which she reveals the artifice of the previous 350 pages, and the ending she devised as atonement for her crime as a child.
This is a beautifully written book. The first half, although describing only a single day, never feels stretched or padded: various scenes are seen from different viewpoints, and we are given insight into the thoughts of several characters (a short passage near the beginning of the book indicates that Briony is its author, for it mentions her later fiction, but this is delicately done and not obvious). Briony’s despair at having her play ruined by her cousins’ inability to act is painfully accurate, and her tragic misunderstanding is understandable to us the reader, but not to the characters so directly and brutally affected. The initially awkward relationship between Robbie and Cecilia is also well-evoked:
[Robbie] might be thinking she was talking to him in code, suggestively conveying her taste for the full-blooded and sensual. That was a mistake, of course, and she was discomfited and had no idea how to put him right. She liked his eyes, she thought, the unblended mix of orange and green, made even more granular in sunlight. And she liked the fact that he was so tall. It was an interesting combination in a man, intelligence and sheer bulk. Cecilia had taken the cigarette and he was lighting it for her…
In this very short extract, I like the way Cecilia’s attention switches from her words (and how conscious she is of what she’s saying to Robbie), to wondering what he’s thinking, and then wandering off into considering his looks – just within one paragraph – showing so clearly how confused she is in her feelings for him, and also conveying to the reader how aware of him she is, both as a mind and a body.
The journey to Dunkirk is both lyrically described and brutal in its horrors – the leg in a tree, for example, or the shell which completely obliterates a mother and child Robbie tries to save from destruction – and there are moments of hope.
Knowing the outcome of the book from having seen the film, I was able to enjoy the writing and the plot without feeling cheated by the ending: if I’d read the book first, I might not have taken Briony’s revelations so calmly. It’s an interesting conceit, though – the ostensibly autobiographical novel being manipulated by its author, thus making the reader conscious of McEwan’s telling of it. On the whole I’m not fond of the writer making the reader so conscious of the artifice of the book, since I like to inhabit the author’s world during the time I’ve spent reading, but McEwan doesn’t make it too obvious. His characters inhabit their worlds very well, I think, and I really enjoyed the way the book was put together – both the plotting, with its multiple viewpoint and flashback structure, as the prose. It certainly encourages me to seek out more novels by McEwan.
Incidentally, I think only one thing doesn’t ring true in the film (but that’s only after having read the book, since McAvoy is excellent as Robbie), and that’s the mismatch between the physical description of Robbie in the book and McAvoy in the flesh, since it’s Robbie’s tallness which causes Briony to be so mistaken in her assumption of his guilt. Otherwise, it’s one of the most faithful literary adaptations I’ve seen, whilst still being a beautiful and moving film.