Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Atonement, which was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2001, is a taut, intensely satisfying meditation on the nature of reality and the narrative structure of morality.
The first part of the novel is set in an English country house in the 1930s. The historicity here is worn lightly, as the world is seen through Briony Tallis’s eyes and Briony, thirteen, a writer eager for raw material of a different kind, has more important things to observe. There are her cousins who have come to stay during their parents’ separation–how will they fit into her latest play, The Trials of Arabella? Then there is her listless older sister Cecilia, straight out of Cambridge, who is behaving in a most peculiar manner.
Briony’s dismembered stream of consciousness gaze on the adult world openly harks back to Woolf. "Simply put, you need the backbone of a story," says a reviewer of one of Briony’s short stories, later in the novel. But the story is there before Briony’s eyes. Cecilia falls in love with Robert, the caretaker’s son, and a childhood friend; a letter is intercepted and misunderstood; and a girl is raped. The careful, choral harmony of the narrative strands are brought to a head in one night. Robert, family friend and her sister’s lover, is sent to prison through Briony’s lies. A love affair and family are splintered.
Briony "was one of those children possessed by the desire to have the world just so." This narrative orderliness engenders her terrible act. For Atonement, in the same way as Enduring Love, is a novel about the moral danger in seeing what you choose to see. The opening quote of the novel is from Austen’s Northanger Abbey, where the heroine, gorged on Gothic romances, misinterprets her world with tragic-comic consequences. Briony then spends the rest of her life (quite literally: the third part of the novel is her first person narrative before she succumbs to dementia) trying to place atonement within her now disordered world.
Nothing is as is seems. McEwan plays with his reader (somewhat gratingly at times it might be said) to extend the modern novel topos on the all-powerful narrator. How does godless atonement work? Is atonement part of the human narrative; or is it too clean, too malleable for godless authors?
The second part of the novel cuts between Robert’s experiences as a soldier during the Dunkirk retreat, and Nurse Briony Tallis’ work with the war casualties in London. This section is rich in historical detail, self-consciously fuller than the Pre-War episode. There is even a deathbed scene, counter-cultural in its emotive tang. Here, Briony’s question as a child is beginning to be answered. "Was everyone else really as alive as she was?"
The young nurse seeks redemption, hoping that as long as there is time, as long as Robert is not killed in action, then she can atone for her crime. There is a fine parallel between the military-like structure of the Hospital, and the chaotic animality of Dunkirk. Briony then seeks a reconciliation in the dreariness of South London suburbia, but the technicalities involved are unsatisfactory in helping her take stock of her actions.
The lovely remnants of this novel are the half etched, fully sentient characters, manipulated yet manipulating a narrator seeking closure. Briony’s mother Emily, and her debilitating migraines which make her observe, helpless, the family in which she does not wish to be involved; the unseen father, busy with the Civil Service and a mistress; Briony’s matron, more human than one surmises. The reality of these personalities enrich and complicate Briony’s atonement. If it is finally realized artistically, through her work of a lifetime, then this is not simply a modern, clever get-out clause.
Atonement is a profoundly moral, important novel. Briony is broken and remolded by her act, and as that happens, she succumbs to dementia, and learns that memory is not the only link to reality. She will not be able to perceive the world around her anymore–and yet it still exists.