Atonement is the latest novel of Ian McEwan, one of Britain’s most renowned writers. Some of his previous classics were ‘The Comfort of Strangers’, ‘The Cement Garden’ and ‘Amsterdam’, for which he won the Booker Prize in 1998. If you ask me, this novel should also be a prizewinner.

McEwan demonstrates a lot of craftmanship in telling a compelling story, though it took me a few dozen pages before I really got into it. The locations and historical periods are very lively described. Atonement starts as a classic family saga, situated in a British countryhouse at the start of the 20th century. After you get a picture of the life of these conventional upper-class folks, with a lot of tension underneath, something happens within 24 hours which will be a crucial factor in the further development of a few people’s lives….

13-year-old Briony Tallis, loved by everyone because of her gift for writing plays, suspects that Robbie Turner, the son of the charlady, is forcing her older sister Cecilia into doing obscene things. When a young girl is harassed in the garden, Briony (wrongfully) accuses Robbie of the act, out of revenge and perhaps jealousy. Robby is imprisoned and expelled from the family’s estate. Cecilia, who believes in his innocence, breaks with her family.

Then we make a leap in time and we are in may 1940, in Normany, in the middle of WW II. Robbie is serving as a soldier, after his prison sentence. The only thing that keeps him going is his desire to be united with Cecelia again. He and the other allied troups try to make their way back to England, while the enemy is constantly attacking. Some very detailed and gruesome scenes of the retreat follow. Meanwhile Cecilia has abandoned her highbrow life and is working as a nurse. Briony has realized that she did something foolish when accusing Robbie, and spends has the rest of the life having remorse for her acts, hoping that she will be forgiven by the victims. She also works as a nurse in a wartime hospital in London, where the hard labour is a form of atonement for her.

The final chapter, situated a few decades later, is highly surprising and proves that Atonement is not just a novel about guilt and remorse, love and war, but also about the power of writing itself and the ability of the writer to interpret reality… A masterpiece!