Once regarded as Britain’s bad boy of dark fiction for his preoccupation with violence, perversity and paranoia, Ian McEwan infuses his works with enough heart and humanity to shed his reputation as a chronicler of the macabre.
Almost. With the engrossing, well-crafted and haunting Atonement, the winner of the 2002 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, McEwan’s ninth novel offers a keen and nuanced exploration of familial love and forgiveness, tinged with an insidious sense of shadowy ambiguity and deceit, and poised to pounce with blindsiding surprises.
As the central action in the novel is set into motion, surprises aren’t exactly to the liking of precocious, imaginative 13-year old Briony Tallis, not while her “wish for a harmonious, organized world denied her the reckless possibilities of wrongdoing.” In the 1935 British upper-middle-class summertime swirl set amid visiting cousins, family friends, and doting older siblings, Briony is shaken from her reveries and naivete when she witnesses and misinterprets in violent terms the awkward but amorous dalliance between her sister Cecilia and Robbie Turner, the charlady’s son.
In her turmoil of emotions, Briony “had her first weak intimation that for her now it could no longer be fairy-tale castles and princesses, but the strangeness of the here and now, of what passed between people, the ordinary people that she knew, and what power one could have over the other.” A couple of other incidents seem to confirm her suspicions, so when her attractive cousin Lola is later assaulted on the grounds, an overreacting Briony, whose “truth” momentarily “instructed her eyes,” jumps to her only conclusion.
After this marvelously sustained and suspenseful buildup, Atonement leaps ahead to the start of World War II, after Cecilia and Robbie have become lovers, and after an estranged and repentant Briony, coming to an awareness “that a person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn, not easily mended,” has offered to make amends. But Robbie can conceive of no forgiveness: “… it was not reasonable or just to hate Briony, but it helped.” As for Briony, who “hated herself for everything she had been,” her “secret torment and the public upheaval of war had always seemed separate worlds, but now she saw how the war might compound her crime.”
And compound the telling of the tale too, perhaps, as well as spurring on the consideration of “how a novelist can achieve atonement.” Full truth and complete consequences, raising eyebrows and raising questions, come only in the latter days of the atoning, in the present, toward the end of Briony’s life as a famous writer. A last-ditch revelatory twist that borders on artifice actually elucidates thematic ideas about truth and imagination, and about the playfulness and complexity of writing. At the same time, it complements the various fictional styles — touched upon and neatly recapitulated within this multidimensional work — from impressionistic to realistic.
But maybe McEwan can have it both ways. “I love these little things, this pointillist approach to verisimilitude,” notes Briony at one moment, “the correction of detail that cumulatively gives such satisfaction.” McEwan’s seamless, vivid style is rendered to luminous affect, by turns hardheaded and heartfelt. And his little goes a long way with an economical, judicious and descriptive shorthand that richly imbues events and characterizations with full implications: “the empty tract of his chin was at the expense of a worried, overpopulated forehead”; unease “lay across the blacked-out city like a mental dusk.” Briony’s “model farm spread across a deep window ledge consisted of the usual animals, but all facing one way — toward the owner — as if to break into song.”
In addition, McEwan’s deceptively effortless prose appears to be mirrored in Cecilia’s preparation to meet Robbie: “She wanted to look as though she had not given the matter a moment’s thought, and that would take time.” Atonement’s subtle complexity is thought-out, and also thought-provoking.