Bad Reputation Book Club: Atonement

Bad Reputation Book Club is a monthly book review series where Autumn James Haworth looks at books that have been critically panned and discusses whether or not these reputations are deserved. In this case, it isn’t a book that’s been critically panned, but rather a book that has had mixed responses over the years, Ian McEwan’s Atonement.

Autumn James Haworth is a bi and trans author from the north of England. He likes to write short stories and poetry all about mental health, growing up and falling in love.


I’m going to be doing things a little differently today. While I’d usually go through the plot of the book I’m reviewing and give commentary throughout, I’m not sure that’s the right thing to do in this case. I usually have pages and pages of notes, but that’s just not the case for this novel. Otherwise, this would basically just be a retelling with little added. There may still be some minor spoilers, but nothing like the usual.

Content Warnings:

  • Sexual content
  • Sexual assault
  • Child abuse
  • Blood, wounds, etc. (Hospital and war settings).

Welcome back to Bad Reputation Book Club. This month we’ll be looking at Atonement by Ian McEwan. While not universally panned, this is one of those books that, for want of a better phrase, has a distinctly Marmite quality. Ian McEwan generally seems to be an author whose work is either loved or loathed by those who delve into his pages. I’m here to try to figure out whether or not this book deserves a bad reputation.

I think one of the first things I noticed about this book was that it did feel kind of pretentious. This meant that, while obviously being well written from a technical standpoint, it was often difficult to enjoy. I think as much as anything, it felt as though McEwan was aiming for recreating an older style of writing, and I’d definitely say he achieved that if that was his goal. I can’t say I’ve read anything else of his to know whether or not he usually writes in this fashion, but even if I’m not a fan, it does work within the context of the book.

I think the concept of “it works even if I don’t really like it” was a running theme throughout for me. I think a lot of that comes from the fact that this felt an awful lot like the sort of book I’d have studied during my time as a student. That’s not really a positive or a negative on the whole I don’t think. I just mean that it’s the sort of book that’s technically brilliant, even if sometimes it can feel a little difficult to get through.

I think, were I reading this for my own pleasure (outside of reviews), it might be the sort of thing that would be read much more slowly than I did with deadlines in place. I only mean that with books that are both enjoyable but also have an academic air to them, I often find them to be difficult to read in large sections. I certainly couldn’t read this in just a couple of sittings. I think that’s relatively common with a lot of literary fiction though. The writing style and language patterns aren’t necessarily the most accessible to wider audiences. Arguably, they’re not supposed to be, but I’ve never enjoyed the thought that some fiction is kind of kept away.

I’m not trying to say that fiction shouldn’t appeal to a more academic audience, but there’s a certain pomposity that always seems to emanate from these books, and I can’t say that this is any kind of exception. It’s not what’s being said, either, at least not in this case. There’s a lot of base and sordid content throughout, in the telling of the story as much as the plot, but the way that this book is written that makes it sound about sixty years older than it actually is just makes it feel really pretentious.

I think I’ve managed to allude to the fact that my feelings on the way the story was told did not fully take away from my enjoyment of the book. For a start, I’ve already mentioned that on a technical level, this book is exceptional. I think most notably the use of dramatic irony and perspective shifts work incredibly well. There are key moments in part one that shape the lives of everyone involved, and McEwan allowing us access to multiple points of view really opens up the wider world. It starts out just feeling a little bit silly, and I mean that in a good way. It’s a case of childhood innocence and misunderstanding, but the more this first part develops, the more sinister it becomes. I really enjoyed that growing sense of dread that pervades the first part; it’s at a personal level and a global one, given the Second World War looming on the horizon.

There was one moment in particular where this use of dramatic irony really hit me. Robbie has written two letters to Cecilia, one of which he actually intends to send to her, the other full of lewd and sexual comments. When he gives the letter to Cecilia’s younger sister, Briony, in order for her to deliver it, there was this dread that washed over me. It was just so clear that the wrong letter had been sent, and given that Briony was already curious to see what’s going on with Cecilia and Robbie, she was bound to read the letter. While there is an earlier scene that assists in this, it’s this moment where Briony takes the letter from Robbie, that seals his fate. McEwan sets up dominoes so carefully before sending them to fall, and I think there’s something quite brilliant about that.

I can see why this book is so divisive. This might be the hardest book I’ve had when it comes down to deciding whether or not it deserves a bad reputation. Technically brilliant but with an air of pomposity, I can see why it’s so easily both loved and loathed. I don’t think it deserves an outright bad reputation. It is not, by any means, a bad book per se. However, I will say that I don’t know that this was an overall enjoyable enough experience that I could warrant giving it a good review either. I don’t think it’s all that common, but I somehow managed to be intrigued and bored at the same time. This is an interesting book if nothing else. I think this might be one of those books where I say that you should read it for yourself. I don’t have a burning passion for this, positive or negative, as I have with many of the other books in this series. So, I think it’s only right if you find out for yourself.


You can follow Autumn on Twitter


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Bits Bobs & Books