Simply stated, this is the story of how a misdeed - motivated by the perpetrator's misunderstanding of a situation and a misguided desire to do good - impacts on the members of an upper-class English family during the 1930s and beyond. But nothing is quite that simple, and other people's needs and misdeeds are skilfully woven into the main story to produce a multi-layered and thought-provoking tale where one can question who was actually responsible and whether or not the resulting need for atonement was limited to only one person.
Briony, the character at the centre of the story, is introduced at the beginning of the novel as a naive, self-centred thirteen year old with a vivid, if somewhat immature, imagination. Although life attempts to teach her that the real world is very different to the one she harbours in her imagination, I feel that the grown-up Briony never completely relinquishes her thirteen-year-old self.
McEwan's writing is impeccable with an obvious understanding of the social class of which he is writing. There are some beautiful descriptive passages, and the story - of the misdeed and the eventual atonement - develops without fanfare, similar to a creek becoming a brook before becoming a fully-fledged river. That the lead up to the actual deed occupies almost half of the book can be frustrating at times given the fact that it is obvious that something is going to happen; however, these pages become more provocative when later viewed alongside the happenings of the second half of the book.
Whether or not atonement was actually made by the right person or persons is something that only the reader can decide for him/herself. A book that is definitely worth reading.
Photo of Ian McEwan from blog.hrc.utexas.edu