Oh, Briony. So creative, so gifted, yet so misguided. A solitary, lonely little girl, living in a dream world and desperately seeking attention. But, really, how could you fabricate such a devastating untruth?
Briony Tallis, the protagonist of Atonement, Ian McEwan’s stunning novel (and now an award winning film) is a gifted child gone bad. At the age of 13, she’s a “serious” writer, at least in her own mind, and through her stories, she defines herself and the world around her. “In a story,” she thinks, “you only had to wish, you only had to write it down, and you could have the world.”
And Briony needs a world, for her life among her family flounders. It’s 1935, she’s the youngest by far of the Tallis children, her father largely absent and her mother lost in a fog of migraine headache and self deception regarding her husband’s obvious infidelity. It’s her older sister Cecilia who most often provides Briony the comfort and attention she requires. Yet Cecilia is growing up and away, a fact Briony recognizes even though she doesn’t quite understand. In her confusion, she creates a devastating fiction, levels a damning accusation, and sets herself up for a lifetime spent in atonement.
How different was childhood in 1935! Children were certainly meant to be seen and not heard, and even Briony with her unusual intelligence was often given short shrift by the family. In our child centered society of the 21st century, she would have been enrolled in special classes, provided with endless opportunities for educational and social enrichment, and placed squarely on a pedestal for general admiration.
Yet Emily Tallis has loosened her grasp on Briony, slipped away in a fog of persistent migraine and disappointment, for Briony had “vanished into an intact inner world of which the writing was no more than the visible surface, the protective crust which even, or especially, a loving mother could not penetrate. Her daughter was always off and away in her mind, grappling with some unspoken, self-imposed problem, as though the weary, self-evident world could be re-invented by a child.”
The world can be hard for children, can’t it? And adults often set them up for failure, purely without meaning to, of course, but hurting them nevertheless. We either love them too little or too much, and often the ultimate result is the same – a child who does unspeakable things to gain attention.
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