In the midst of a heat wave, during the summer 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony secretly witnesses a scene involving her older sister Cecilia, their childhood friend, Robbie, a fountain and near-nakedness. Unable to understand the signs of this scene, the little girl gives free rein to her wild imagination, convinces herself that she needs to protect her sister and elaborates a neat little drama that, by the end of the day and with the help of other unfortunate events, will disrupt their lives in a most terrible way. A lifetime will not be enough for Briony to atone for her crime.
The first part of the novel slowly, very slowly builds up the tension. The idle rhythm of the narration, the long descriptions of objects, lights, colors, thoughts have a woolfian quality and make you feel, if you don’t commit to the book, that, because of this unbearable and hammering heat, nothing is happening and nothing ever will. But Ian McEwan is not Virginia Woolf, and his narrative voice is not limited to the inner minds of the main characters. Contrarily to Briony’s first draft, which is described by the publisher she sends it to as “owing a little too much to the techniques of Mrs Woolf” and as lacking “the backbone of a story”, McEwan’s novel doesn’t lack a backbone. On the contrary, this is a novel that takes you, with the utmost precision, to a place full of doubts, uncertainties and endless possible worlds, like a room full of mirrors in which you struggle to know which reflection is “real” and end up doubting of your very own existence.