When I was a young girl, I had a recurring dream about a wounded soldier. I only ever saw the profile of his thin, pale face – aquiline nose, strong chin – and his dark hair under his cap. Sometimes his leg and foot were not bandaged. Sometimes he discarded his crutches, but I recognised him by his limp. Once or twice he was on a troop train carrying wounded soldiers. They lay on bunk beds, the damaged and the dying, and I had to force myself to move along the rocking aisle looking for him. Once, I thought I’d found him, but the soldier’s face was half blown away. Occasionally he walked on a beach, dragging his leg. He’d find a sand dune, lower his back to it and sit and smoke in silence, looking out to sea. He was waiting for someone, someone who never came.
When I first read Atonement, shortly after it was published in 2001, my connection to it was instantaneous. Somebody finally shared my guilt, and understood me. The girl with the overactive imagination; the soldier who waits but is never rescued. The parts about Briony as a nurse, and about the older Briony as a well-known writer, made less impact on me. I read Part Two and Robbie’s journey to Dunkirk over and over. I felt that the writer and I shared something private and personal. Perhaps he, too, had read Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose as a child. As a stand-alone piece of writing Part Two is one of the most flawless and deeply-moving things I’ve ever read. I am filled with anguish for Robbie every time I read it.
When I studied Atonement recently as a creative writing student, I was introduced to the technicalities I had missed the first time, and I understood why others considered it a brilliant work. Atonement taught me how to link four very different stories, written in different points of view, in one novel; it taught me about intertextuality, which gives it such depth, and about foreshadowing; it taught me about stream-of-consciousness – who could forgot Briony studying her finger and willing it to move – and how to turn a novel on its head in its dying pages.
I was already in love with Atonement but I felt myself being crushed within its pages and falling ever deeper.
Well, I admit it. The romance is part of the attraction for me. Boy loves girl. Little sister loves boy. Little sister betrays boy. Boy does not get girl but, by God, he tries.
Then there is Briony’s guilt. And our emotions. Boy does not get girl and dies alone and lonely on a beach. He has to die, of course, in order to bring our distress to a climax. I’m not sure about Cecilia. I would have quite liked for Cecilia to have survived and returned to quietly stab Briony while she sat at her typewriter, but then we as readers wouldn’t have suffered quite so much. And, by God, do we suffer.
To state the obvious, reading is a very personal thing. When we read we bring all our knowledge and innateness to the page. There are two of us reading: me and the person who makes me who I am. That is why Atonement is on my list of top ten great books. I can partly explain it by saying that I have an overactive imagination, and that my father was in the Second World War.