Today on Blogcritics
Home » Atonement, Ian McEwan

Atonement, Ian McEwan

In a recent New Yorker article on the late Stephen Jay Gould, biologist H. Allen Orr describes the difficulty that paleontologists have with the sparse fossil record: “Imagine trying to reconstruct Western history from two snapshots, one of Pontius Pilate and the other of Evel Knievel.”

We humans face a similar problem in our everyday lives, simply trying to understand each other. What evidence do we have for what goes on in our fellow man’s head? Close friends, parents, spouses, family members remain able to surprise us long after we think we’ve gotten to know them as well as we can know anyone else, so sparse is the “fossil record” of speech and action by which we know their inner thoughts.

This inevitable gap between supposed and real understanding has provided the grist for many novelists’ mills, and indeed if this gap were to close, one wonders whether the novel would have much future. The novel offers us at least the comforting illusion that we can access another person’s thoughts, understand their motivations as well as we understand our own. The problem, of course, is that even our own thoughts can’t be adequately captured as prose, let alone as narrative prose, and so the novel remains an approximation at best. In the past century, writers tried hard to throw off this constraint through experimental techniques, such as the stream of consciousness, that arguably leave the reader even more alienated. In recent years literature has seen a profusion of irony and exotica, as if writers are too exhausted to keep up the fight, and instead hope to distract us.

This is why Ian McEwan’s newest novel, Atonement is so important. At one level, it is a well-plotted, unusually (for this author) emotionally-involving piece of conventional fiction; at another, it is radically meta-fictional, tackling head-on the gap of human incomprehension and the novelistic project to bridge that gap.

Atonement begins on a hot summer day in 1935, in an English countryside setting unusual for this author who is often drawn to extreme situations. Writing a quintessentially traditional third-person narrative, McEwan dances in and out of the minds of his characters, members of the Tallis family, cousins and friends. Central to the novel is an adolescent would-be writer, Briony Tallis, whose taste for drama and demand for attention lead her to tell a terrible lie about a family friend, Robbie Turner. McEwan fans will not be disappointed by the agonizing (and extreme) consequences that ripple out of her decision.

McEwan is often labeled a cold fish, and not without justification, but in this novel he makes us care more deeply about his characters than in any other that I’ve read. I personally found it hard to put down the book, I was so worried about the fate of his almost helpless dramatis personae. This is particularly true in the second portion of the novel, which leaps ahead to the early days of World War II. Robbie is in the British Army, in its infamous retreat to Dunkirk, while Briony and her sister Cecilia are nurses in London. McEwan’s portrayal of this agonizing period in history is fantastic; Briony describes waking up every morning with an almost excited sense of something important about to happen, and then remembering what it is: a German invasion.

I won’t ruin the novel’s conclusion, and I’d recommend avoiding any “spoiler” reviews, because the shock of the epilogue is part of what makes this the best novel of the year, and the most unexpectedly metafictional. Having presented us with a prose narrative so conventional it is almost Victorian, and proven that the traditional novel retains its power to bridge the gap between people, McEwan trips off a final explosive charge that reverberates after the book is closed, and reminds us again of the paucity of the interpersonal fossil record.

About Charles Murtaugh

  • Gary William

    First, I agree with that the first part of this novel is captivating and the prose style excellent. Apart from the characters who came alive on the pages, it has texture–lots of original descriptive passages. That is up to chapter fourteen.
    On the other hand,I think the author could have added two short chapters to chapter fourteen and ended the story. But he went on to add two fat chapters,mostly background material,Robbie’s experience at the war and his thoughts, which I felt slowed down the story to the point of coma. In between the time of Robbie’s conviction and the end when he met Brioney again, I felt the story had stopped abruptly. No action took place between the main characters–only Robbie was thinking and thinking. As compared to the first part,I also think there was a shift of diction in the second and the third parts. I felt that the writer rushed the book into publication.
    My last point is on the characters. At the end of the story, I cared more about Brioney than Robbie the victim.
    Despite all my criticisms,it is the best book I’ve read this year and have recommended it to friends. Maybe, I expected too much.
    Gary.

  • nanneroo

    I thought the book was okay. I agree with the review above – it got too boring reading about the war and Robbie’s experience out in the field. I had to challenge myself to get back to the story at hand…all about Briony.

    At one point in the story – when Robbie was agonizing over how to approach his true love I was surprised that a man could think that way. I mean he was going on and on sounding just like what a woman would be thinking. Does he like me? What shall I wear? If I win this game of solitare that means he will (fill in the blank). Somehow I got to some web site that was a discussion group of this book – no not this one. Someone else posed the question? How was the author able to think like a woman and someone wrote back saying that Ian McEwan use to be a woman, that’s how and that he had gender reassignment surgery in 1978. Anyone else hear this? Not that it really matters…well, it does put a certain spin on things.

  • Sarah

    In response to the critisism of this novel, regarding the “retreat from Dunkirk” section, this part clearly ties into the meta-narrative theme of the novel.
    “Atonement” is about the power and the pleasure of writing, and the challenge of manipulating a reader into believing the author’s opinion. Whilst we can see Briony, the narrator, doing this throughout the novel (and the extent of the manipulation of her audience is revealed at the end), at the same time McEwan himself is manipulating us.
    These war scenes planted into the middle of the novel, which some would call boring and unnecessary, are actually McEwans way of presenting his opinion of war, and this particular war. Most readers will read this bit of the novel merely in order to get back to Briony’s story, and in doing so they absorb what the author is saying about war – yet if Mc Ewan had just wrote a novel solely about the Dunkirk retreat, his views would have been open to a much smaller audience.

    On the other hand, a reader could look at this section of the novel in direct response to Briony’s story. Since her novel is an atonement, this part of the novel could be looked at as a part of her atonement – by showing what Robbie went through because of her, she compounds her own guilt and thus adds to her atonement.

    Either way, this section of the novel is most definitely a part of the meta-narrative theme and the idea of the power of writing and the manipulation that thus occurs.

  • Mark Anthony

    The Dunkirk portion is also remarkable for another reason, if we see Robbie as a sort of double for Briony. Since Briony is doing the writing, then it is really her thoughts that are being portrayed to us as Robbie’s thoughts. The parallels, such as Cee saying “come back” to Robbie just as she had to Briony, among other points, bring the doubling to our attention. If you read that section over again with this in mind, you may be surprised by what is presented.

    Also, reading the book over again with the information from the end in mind gives you a *completely* different understanding of everything.

  • http://www.acyclovir.net Cheap Acyclovir

    Greetings to all! Cheap Acyclovir

  • http://coxcable Jim Daly

    I stopped reading and began skimming on page 162. Excessive detail in many parts that might appeal to some but not to me. Briony and McEwan are manipulators and this reader does not particularlly like being manipulated.
    However, for all the detail, they are not subtle manipulators. McEwan reveals himself early with a “dear and gentle reader” teaser at the end of chapter eleven: “This decision, as he was to acknowlege many times, transformed his life,” and them by the interpolation of numerous details between Robbie’s arrest and any sort of resolution. The patient reader will plod dutifully through these; I skimmed on to the end.
    I feel the author fell in love with his ability to describe detail in very aesthetic prose and became lost in his own grandeur.

  • http://nofound.com/adia Adia

    I read it as I was a student for CriticL READING.
    I realise that why my Professor chose this novel,which matipulated my mind and my thoughts

  • srp

    if you didn’t like this one,try First Love Last Rites, if you haven’t already. It was the first book i read by McEwan and it is, i think, a really compelling collection of short stories. It’s far easier to access than Atonement. Also, Amsterdam is great too – short and simple.

    Most have prob. read these if you turnedto Atonement, so you probably know McEwan’s earlier work – still, just in case, thought i’d mention. Amsterdam is great, and in some ways, like Jean Echenoz – the great French spy/detective novel writer who recently won the Prix Goncourt. check him out too.

    thx. for the review…

  • http://www.enlargepenisguide.com/ penis enlargement

    I agree with you on the main issue of the topic. I remember, long time ago, Jack London said something like “Everything positive has a negative side; everything negative has a positive side.” I also find it interesting to see different points of views and learn useful things in the discussion.

    Posted by: Richard Hill at May 14, 2005 08:59 AM

  • ramona q

    The novel is great until part three, when it becomes full of cliches and unbelievable coincidences. The epilogue reminded me of the film Titanic, where the old woman recounts her own experience at sea. Again, this is pretty cliched stuff. I also felt that the novel owes a lot (perhaps too much) to Virginia Woolf’s novel, “To the Lighthouse.” McEwan suggests that Woolf is Briony’s favourite writer, and in this way he tips his hat to her. But I think the first part of Atonement comes too close for comfort to the first part of To the Lighthouse (which also has a three part structure). There’s a fine line between allusion and blatant ripping-off.

  • Poppy

    I thoroughly enjoyed Atonement, and am currently studying it, which hopefully won’t kill off all pleasure i got from it in the first place. I believe that the war scenes are indeed there to compound Briony’s guilt, they are also a memorial by McEwan to his own parents and all the others who lived through and were brought together by the war.

  • Sabrina

    i enjoyed the book atonement
    however, now i need to write an essay comparing atonement and Ian McEwan’s amsterdam but im having a hard time figuring out a topic in which i can compare both novels. any suggesions

  • Anika Rabbani

    some book. starts off ok, but the war part kills you and then u r forced to read the end to find out what happens…

  • Marc Wright

    I cannot see how you are all berating the 2nd book. The novel is not just a story it combines the metafictional element of McEwan conveying the pointlessness of truth and writing in a very tongue in cheek way and it deals well with confusion and misunderstanding. Briony, having to write about Robbie’s time in Dunkirk is all part of her atonemen. Had she not lied and said that she saw the ‘maniac’ rape Lola then Robbie would have been a suvccessful doctor and probably a high ranking medical offier, if he chose to enter the war. However he ends up as a private forced to debase himself and eventually dying of septacemia. It’s Briony’s ability to craft the novel herself that she allows Robbie and Cecilia to live on despite the truth for it gives him an immortality in literature and this allows Briony to come close to fulfilling her atonement.

  • HollyT

    I’m confused. I loved the whole book but don’t quite understand the ending (call me dim). Am I to understand that Briony never made the visit to Cecelia’s flat when Robbie was there? Was that just something she invented? It’s just that she says at the end, “––that my walk across London ended at the church at Clapham Common, and that the cowardly Briony limped back to the hospital, unable to confront her recently bereaved sister…”. Help!

  • HollyT

    Oh okay, I just re-read it and now I get it. Wow, my stupidity astounds me.

  • Naomi

    I thought the novel was brilliant. Key points of choice, appearance vs. reality, truth vs. fiction and the way they are displayed is astounding.
    Anyways, I’m looking for key symbols in the novel, like the ming vase. I’ve been writing mini-essays related to major and minor themes found in the novel and other pieces of media and have somewhat lost track of the book in the process. Can anyone refresh my memory? I’m creating a scrapbook that has to reflect the novel. Any ideas? Some of my subjects include redemption, truth vs. fiction, forgiveness, choice…thanks :)

  • Clinton

    The cliched bit at the end is understandable. If you cared to read it again, you’d realise that half of it never happened. If it never happened, but only in Briony’s alternate reality, McEwan could even have gone abstract if he wanted to, if it were realistic for Briony to write it as such.

  • Ansuya

    What is the theme or themes of this novel??

  • cristian gobo

    I loved the story, it reminds me of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, though quite simpler. The writer displays his majestic prose to engulf the reader in a world of magical description, metafiction and tenderness, for Cee and Robbie become the 21st century Romeo and Juliet. Briony finally atones, Robbie will remain forever in our hearts.

  • Marc

    I like the 2nd and 3rd parts much more than the first; call me a phillistine, but after the first 90 pages of reading about the light shifting through the windows, i was craving for ANYTHING to happen

  • Geir

    I recently finished Atonement, and I loved the book. I agree that part one is quite different from parts two and three, both in pace and narrative style. Could this be McEwan’s way of showing us Briony’s develpoment as an author? Remember that she supposedly uses 60 years to finish the book we’re reading. Part one is a development of the novella she tries to get published in Horizon. She gets a long letter from the editor, where he comments that the novella is too Virginia Woolf-ish and lacks a plot. Parts two and three is finished later, maybe after Briony has become a well known author, with a style of her own. Part three is possibly written before part two, although the re-writes the end. After all, part three contains her own 1940 experiences, while Robbie’s Dunkirk story is based on letters from one of his fellow soldiers and Cecelia’s and Robbie’s letters to each other.

    As for Briony’s atonement, I fail to see it. She confesses her guilt, yes, and she is clearly very sorry, but where’s the atonement in writing a novel? Too me, Briony comes accross as very unsympathetic. She devotes a part of her book to Robbie’s war-time experiences, accepting that she’s to blame for him being in France. But what about her own sister, Cecelia, whom she supposedly loves. Cecelia’s thoughts and experiences are only conveyed to us via Robbie’s thoughts. She hardly has a voice of her own in the book. To me, Cecelia is the novel’s most tragic figure. When we learn, at the end, that she is drowned in an Underground station only a few months after Robbie’s death, it’s heartbreaking. She dies alone. Briony has been too cowardly to approach her. I can see why McEwan has to let her die, though. This makes the consequences of Briony’s crime even more devastating. If Cecelia, or her children and grand children, had been present at Briony’s 77 birthday, that would have softened the blow at the end, wouldn’t it.