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Spoiler alert

Few books make me feel so deeply as Ian McEwan’s Atonement. I’ve just finished re-reading the first part, and I’m devastated again.

As the party waits for Robbie to return and be arrested, we watch it through Briony’s eyes and it’s so very frustrating because I long to know about Cecilia’s rage at her note being shown around to everyone and her passion for Robbie. I long to know what Robbie is thinking. Such a heartbreaking scene: him coming out of the mist at dawn having found the lost boys, expecting a hero’s welcome, and instead this stony faced line of people waiting with angry hatred for him.

And in feeling so angry at Briony, we forget the worst sin committed here: Paul Marshall’s rape of Lola and then the cowardly warmongering snob’s silence as an innocent man is arrested for the crime. What an evil human being! This novel affects me so much that I hate him as I read, I hate the way he’s got between Cecilia and Robbie, the way he’s destroyed Robbie and Lola’s lives.

McEwan casts this villian so well by giving Marshall plausible pomposity and this delicious detail of him being the gleeful inventor of that disgusting counterfeit – compound chocolate – and his desire for war so that the demand for his chocolate increases.

McEwan is a writer who has such superb control and pacing. He knows how to create narrative hunger in the reader, and yet once he’s done this, he also knows the precise speed at which to release details to us to keep us enthralled and desperate for more.

Some people I respect a lot find the first part slow and boring. I wonder if this is because their experience of the world is too different to McEwan’s. For me, McEwan so precisely gets to the experience of being alive when he talks of his characters’ motivations and thoughts that I don’t mind if a perfectly ordinary day occurs. However, I also am always aware that some menacing event that’s about to change everyone’s lives is hanging in the air.