This is the first book of the month that I read back when I was still a newbie at our book group. I am not sure if I would have read this soon otherwise. It was April then, a hot month in our country, and, like the opening chapter of the novel, the first event takes place on a hot day.
Briony Tallis, the central character, is fussing around with her play. Oh yes, she is an attention-hungry child with a knack for literature. She is directing a play, entitled The Trials of Arabella, she wrote for her brother. She wants to have it performed on that night in celebration of her brother’s arrival. Before that night, instead of getting something done, the cast, composed of her newly arrived cousins, get bored and would rather go for a dip at the pool. One of them even has the nerve of taking over Briony’s task as the director.
Frustrated, Briony goes out of the house, whipping nettles with a stick, until she meets Robbie Turner, the son of the Tallis’s housekeeper. He hands her a note for Cecilia, Briony’s older sister. She grabs the note, sealed in an envelope. She is intrigued. She opens it. She reads it.
And, so to speak, the rest is history.
The problem these fifty-nine years has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.
The novel is divided into three parts. The first part is composed of the events of that day, from the rehearsal of The Trials of Arabella up to the next day, that time when the sun shyly stretches his fingers upon the dreaming earth, which is also the time Robbie leaves the Tallis house, for reasons I will not say. But I’ll say this much: Robbie leaves in disgrace because of that little lie that Briony slipped through her malicious teeth.
The second part is about the war. We read about Robbie, serving his country during the war and walking toward the coast to catch a ship that would take him home. We read about Cecilia, a nurse who is waiting for Robbie to come home. And we read about Briony, also a nurse, asking for Robbie and Cecilia’s forgiveness for the terrible tale that nearly destroyed the blossoming love of her sister and her childhood crush.
The last part is the epilogue, where we read about a much, much older Briony, keeping up with her ailing health and boasting an armada of books she has penned after her time as a war nurse. This, perhaps, is the culminating point of the story, where the big bomb is dropped. Of course, I won’t drop that here, although I am usually inclined to do so, but I am feeling a little stingy now.
One of my bookish friends spoiled the ending for me, deliberately or not, I cannot say, and you can just imagine the vexation that I nursed for this friend. But really, this spoiler made me love the novel more. Weird, huh? Every time Cecilia writes, “Robbie, come back. Come back to me,” my chest constricts a barrel of tears. Call me a crybaby, but I don’t care.
This novel is largely about love, war, and what else? Oh, remorse. That shapeless guilt clinging fiercely on Briony’s shoulders for six decades is too much a burden to tow. It is enough to torment a person in a lifetime. It’s the consequence of her precocious imagination, rash judgment, and misunderstanding of adult motives. But could we blame her 13-year old thinking? Did she really intend to protect her sister, or was she just plain jealous?
The novel explores the wide and relatively unknown repercussions of the words that fall from our lips. The way we perceive things, the way we craft them in our heads, and the way we want to deliver them, whether our intentions came out of spite, out of unconscious jealousy, out of disgust, out of uncouthness, will affect someone, change something. Which is why words are too powerful. The learned person can concoct anything from these: a play, a letter, a love story, a crime.
And a lie. It is so easy to destroy something with one. It also takes one to make a beautiful novel, although one has to be as good as McEwan. This is my first McEwan novel, and I am definitely impressed.
And, cue violins, it takes a “cunt” to create a lie. Wink, wink.