Ian McEwan is widely considered to be one of the most important novelists writing in English. He studied with Malcolm Bradbury and August Wilson at the University of East Anglia, and he began winning awards early in his career. These included the 1976 Somerset Maugham Award for his first collection of short stories, First Love, Last Rites (1975); the 1987 Whitbread Novel Prize for The Child in Time (1987); and the 1998 Man Booker Prize for Amsterdam (1998). Atonement won the W. H. Smith Literary Award and the National Book Critics’ Circle Fiction Award, among others. McEwan has also written children’s books, screenplays, and librettos.
McEwan’s earlier works earned him the nickname Ian Macabre for their graphic depictions of violence and sex. His work later shifted from elaborately detailed settings and scenes to extensive exploration of characters’ thoughts and emotional states. He became interested in language as a medium of both communication and miscommunication, declaring that he wanted to “explore all the comic and tragic possibilities that occur when perfectly well-meaning people can fall foul of each other, simply through misunderstanding.”
Atonement hinges on just such misunderstandings. Part 1 of the novel shifts back and forth between Briony’s, Cecilia’s, and Robbie’s perspectives. By showing how each character perceives the events of the day, and how each event leads to further developments and greater misunderstanding, McEwan achieves a remarkable sense of realism both in each individual character and in the unfolding of rather extreme circumstances. In doing so, one reviewer writes, he has created the perfect fictional medium for showing trauma’s “blind spots and sneaky obliquities.” The central trauma is effaced by the ways the characters deal with its aftermath.
McEwan’s interest in language and writing comes through...
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