The first half of Atonement — the long first part of the book — is set in 1935, at the Tallis home in the English countryside. It begins with Briony Tallis, a bright but still very childish thirteen year-old, preparing a play, The Trials of Arabella. Briony seems a budding dramatist, enjoying this staging of events and putting words into people’s mouths, but the events of just those days will change her from potential playwright to novelist, a very different kind of fabulist.
A great deal goes on in the brief time covered in this first part of the book, but most of it is relatively mundane stuff. The highlight is meant to be the return of Briony’s brother, Leon, from school; it is to impress him that Briony writes her play.
McEwan slowly sets the stage and introduces the players — also more dramatist than novelist at the beginning. The house is fairly full — though, in the terrible heat, not exactly bustling with activity. There is another sibling: Briony’s considerably older sister, Cecilia. The parents are weak presences: the mother, Emily, isn’t a very strong woman and the father is almost entirely absent (away working in London).
Other figures of note include Robbie Turner, the housekeeper’s son who shows great promise and whose education has been paid for by the Tallises. He and Cecilia both attended Cambridge at the same time, and while they didn’t associate much there they suddenly find themselves closer than expected back home.
Then there are the cousins — nine-year-old twin boys and the fifteen-year-old Lola. Their parents have split up and the children have just been sent here, where Briony immediately ropes them into participating in her play. Lola, adept at some manipulation, turns out to be a bit much for Briony to try to control — but Briony seems to manage to twist most situations to her satisfaction.
Then there’s the wealthy industrialist, slick Paul Marshall, also staying over …..
McEwan takes his time, allowing the story to unfold. There are ominous signs and small warnings all along. There are accidents — a child wetting the bed, a chipped vase — and then things seen and overheard and possibly misinterpreted (and possibly missed). There are more dramatic slips — Robbie pens two letters and has Briony deliver the wrong one. It becomes ever clearer: something bad is bound to happen, something terrible, even.
Briony is at the centre of most of it. The novel wanders farther afield, focussing on others, too, but Briony is the key. She alone might have been able to change the course of events. McEwan makes it clear: there were opportunities:
She could have gone in to her mother then and snuggled close beside her and begun a résumé of the day. If she had she would not have committed her crime. So much would not have happened, nothing would have happened, and the smoothing hand of time would have made the eveing barely memorable
But throughout there is also always a sense of inevitability to the story.
Briony does do something very, very bad — but the true crime (and there is one) is committed by another. It’s one of the few weaknesses in the book (though in a book of such strength weakness too is relative, and it is not that much of a blemish): the evil-doer is too strongly depicted as such, the character’s villainy too obvious, even the deed itself foreshadowed in almost every detail (there was no doubt what the crime would be, or who the victim). The suspense, however, is in Briony’s crime — to see what her betrayal will be, and how McEwan will manage it.
It is a horrible betrayal, ruining two lives. It comes almost exactly halfway through the book — a long buildup just for this, but at no point does McEwan disappoint along the way. The reader has been prepared for it, and it is still shocking and wrenching — a neat, tragic climax smack in the centre of the novel.
The first part of the novel ends with Briony’s crime — allowing for only a few bits of the consequences to unfold. What really happens in the hours and days and months and even years after isn’t made immediately clear.
The second part of the novel jumps ahead a few years, focussing on Robbie Turner, now soldiering in France — in fact, fleeing from the oncoming Germans. It’s a complete change of pace and scene — and story. It might be a bit too much — McEwan showing he can write war-scenes, while the reader constantly wants to know: but what of all the others. But McEwan sticks with Robbie, allowing only a few more details to come out that reveal what transpired in the intervening years, and ultimately that too works.
The third part focusses on Briony, studying to become a nurse in wartime London — the same job her estranged sister, Cecilia, has. Briony is also still writing, and at one point sends a manuscript to Cyril Connolly at Horizon — receiving an encouraging rejection letter. McEwan presents the entire three-page letter, and from Connolly’s comments it becomes clear that Briony submitted what amounts to a first draft of the first part of Atonement (reading slightly differently now in part because some of Connolly’s suggestions have been incorporated into it) ……
It dawns on readers: Briony’s atonement is not her forsaking Cambridge to become a nurse, or trying to be forgiven by those she wronged, but rather it is the writing of this novel. This is confirmed, soon enough.
The book closes with a short last section set in the present, in London, 1999 — a final summing up. There appear to have been readers who were disappointed by what has been perceived as an unfair final authorial twist here. Briony even anticipates them:
I know there’s always a certain kind of reader who will be compelled to ask, But what really happened ?
“The answer is simple”, McEwan has Briony write — and it is. McEwan shows here, with a crystal clarity that few novelists have achieved in recent times: fiction triumphs.
The author decides what “really happened”. That’s always the case. That is what fiction is. And here, for once, the author has presented his decision in a near-perfect manner — in particular because he shows so well how this particular reality (or un-reality) came about (and leaves the inevitable lingering questions of what can be believed, of what is truth and what is wishful thinking and what pure invention). Questions remain — but McEwan makes a convincing case for their needing to remain, and for readers needing to confront them. Trust us: neat endings, tied up with a bow, aren’t nearly as satisfying as what McEwan has to offer.
Fiction doesn’t offer certainty, or absolute answers. It is nothing like factual, literal truth. But McEwan here shows why this fiction-truth is better, and what amazing power fiction has
It hardly plays a major role until near the end, but Atonement is a convincing example of why authors write novels — indeed, of how (and why) we all create our own realities (be they in book form, or merely mind-games that allow us to bear the enormity that is life itself). Both Briony-as-author and, much more significantly, McEwan-as-author make a very impressive case for the continued role and need for the novel.
And Atonement is a also a very good novel even without these writerly concerns. The first part is exceptional, a large cast of characters and many events adeptly interwoven, all culminating in a terrible but understandable betrayal. The other parts, too, are very well done — the horrors of war, the scenes of the wounded, and the lives of Briony, Cecilia, and Robbie.
A marvelous read, highly recommended.
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Atonement – the film:
Other books by Ian McEwan under review:
Other books of interest under review:
- See the index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review
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British author Ian McEwan is the author of many fine novels. He won the Booker Prize for Amsterdam in 1998.
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