Ian McEwan’s stony-titled new novel, ”Atonement,” opens with a scene of pastoral bliss. It is 1935, an English summer is in full swing and parallelograms of morning light are making their way across the floor of the Tallis family’s country house, where everyone is busy preparing for the return of Leon, the oldest son. This is exciting news for his younger sister, Briony, who is putting on a production of her new play. It’s not such good news for her older sister, Cecilia, who will have to face her childhood friend, Robbie, whom she spent most of her time at Cambridge pointedly ignoring, and secretly falling in love with. So far, then, ”Atonement” would seem to have very little to atone for, unless you were to count an above-average chance of being made into a Merchant-Ivory film.
This in itself should be enough to have hardened McEwan fans anxiously flicking back to check that it is indeed his name on the dust jacket. Just a few novels ago, McEwan was offering useful tips on how best to saw through a human thigh bone (remove the trousers first), and his last novel, ”Amsterdam,” which won the 1998 Booker Prize, ended with a mutual euthanasia pact. Try getting that past Emma Thompson’s agent. Yet here is McEwan, at the helm of what looks suspiciously like the sort of English novel — irises in full bloom, young lovers following suit — that English novelists stopped writing more than 30 years ago.
Gradually, though, a familiar disquiet begins to settle over the novel like dust. There’s that date for a start, four years distant from the onset of the war, but still a little too close for comfort. Then there’s the arrival of Leon’s friend, Paul Marshall, a Quilty-like bore whose gaze lingers on the Tallis girls just that fraction of a second too long. Then there’s the small matter of Briony. Or perhaps not so small; at 13, Briony stands on the threshold of adolescence, with all its itchy self-dramatizing instincts and glamorous mood swings. Contemplating the loss of a favorite dress, ”Briony knew her only reasonable choice then would be to run away, to live under hedges, eat berries and speak to no one, and be found by a bearded woodsman one winter’s dawn, curled up at the base of a giant oak, beautiful and dead.”
Such fantasies seem harmless enough, and another novelist might have mined them for their charm alone, but McEwan has always had an eye on the darker veins that course through children’s imaginations. His recent book for children, ”The Daydreamer,” had a nice Roald Dahl-like streak of malice to it, and his adult fiction has always heeded the close alliance between creative and destructive impulses. When Briony’s plans for her play are derailed, her dramatic instincts look to feed elsewhere, and they find scandalized sustenance in glimpsed intimacies between Robbie and Cecilia. Before the night is out, a crime will be committed, a lie told and a little girl who thought herself the heroine of her own drama will find herself playing the villain in someone else’s. So much for the soft bloom of innocence.
It would be shame to divulge exactly what happens on that night — one of the great things about McEwan is how much faith he has in the urgings of plot. His books have a natural 45-degree tilt, leaning forward, through a fog of mounting unease, toward claret-dark revelation. Interestingly, what stays with you afterward is the unease, not the revelation. Rereading his novel ”Black Dogs” recently, I remembered that the climax involved some dogs — black ones, as I recall — but couldn’t remember what it was the mutts got up to. This is not an insult; on the contrary, McEwan seems instinctively to have found a perfect fictional equivalent for the ways and workings of trauma — for its blind spots and sneaky obliquities.
The events of that night, for instance, account for only half the plot of ”Atonement”: the rest is reaction, ripple, repair. When the action reopens a few years later, Robbie is dodging German shells in France, Cecilia is praying for his safe return and Briony, now estranged from the both of them and working as a nurse, is busy piecing together soldiers in a London hospital: ”Here and there one edge of the ruptured skin rose over the other, revealing its fatty layers, and little obtrusions like miniature bunches of red grapes forced up from the fissure.”
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Tom Shone is a film critic for The Daily Telegraph of London.