Politics and Society

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Atonement Revisited

Some books justify themselves and even their flaws in every line. Some books only justify themselves in the end. Ian McEwan gambles that a story which cannot be justified, even in the end, can still make a great novel. I think he may be right! While I have some reservations about the new aesthetic, in general, I think McEwan’s Atonement (2001) is a truly remarkable book. Even if you know the basic - simple - plot, it is a book you will have to read to the end to fathom. The quality of the prose, generally, makes this easy enough. But the quality and cleverness of its design makes this a surprising, even an amazing, book. It is also a book very difficult to describe or say much about without spoiling the experience for new readers, but (confining myself to its deserving matters of style) I will try. Unfortunately, for me, mentioning some of the most impressive aspects of the book would ruin it for others; so this review is necessarily incomplete.

First and foremost, I think, Atonement is an extraordinary character study of Briony Tallis, a young upper-middle-class, literary ingénue, whose moral failure at age thirteen, in 1935, has dire consequences for Robbie Turner – the son of the Tallis household maid, and lover of Briony’s older sister, Cecelia. How, or even whether, Briony can atone for her youthful crime, is the element of suspense that keeps us engrossed and pushes the narrative forward. It works. For certain, it is a highly suspenseful book, the twists and turns of which are thoroughly integral, not only to the plot, but to the structure, and also to the very style of presentation. Mostly, however, it is the psychology of this precocious child that is intriguing.

Of course, suspense is common in novels; without it we mostly wouldn’t bother, but McEwan distinguishes himself in this: Instead of the unlikely or improbable revelations and reversals of high melodrama, he develops the story by refreshingly subtle, sometimes surprising, and always believable motives and occasions for action. His attention to the details of how things actually work - psychologically and socially - provides him opportunities for revealing character, setting up scenes and developments, and echoing larger themes of the story all at once. (Examples abound: Briony's resentful treatment of Lola and the twins, Emily's vigil by the phone, and Cecelia's dressing room ordeal before the dinner, are all representative of a great talent.) The narrative flow from scene to scene, and character interactions were an especial pleasure. I often found myself marveling at an earlier detail fulfilling itself as a crucial consequence in the plot and thinking, yes, that’s how such things do happen! This talent goes a long way to securing credibility in a melodrama; and Atonement is, unabashedly, I think – we might even say deliberately - a melodrama.

Throughout the novel we are challenged, of course, to judge this young woman, this girl, this nurse, this would-be writer, by her actions, as they are informed by her intentions. And she admits her guilt. Only a very clever master could make this simple moral arithmetic a matter of profound consideration, but Ian McEwan has done that! For, Atonement is also a meditation on the hazardous complicity of gullibility. (To say more, here, about this very important point certainly would spoil the book for others. Damn!)

The story is told in three books: Book I revolves around a fateful night of homecoming and intended celebrations on the Tallis Estate in the summer of 1935; Book II takes us to the battle fields of northern France just after the outbreak of World War II, during the retreat of British forces to Dunkirk. And Book III takes us back to London, just after the emergency boat lift ('the miracle at Dunkirk"), to the hospital where Briony, now 18, in 1940, is a probationary nurse, preparing with the staff for the expected German invasion and the unexpected deluge of Dunkirk evacuees. These two sections (II and III) work surprisingly well, seamlessly really, to convey Briony’s sense of the enormity of her earlier moral failure –her sin. As I mentioned early on, there is, for us, a terrible sense of urgency about the issue of how, or even whether, she can atone for this failure, which is only heightened by the grim realities of the British retreat, of which Robbie is a part. The hospital scenes allow yet another level of realistic development and perspective on the moral crisis and Briony's evolving character.

The depiction of this theme, the tragedy at Dunkirk and the hospital nurses’ first encounter with the horrors of war, is as brilliant and well executed an example of war story narration as anything I have read in a long while. In these sections (Books II and III) especially, there is a level of feeling and identification that is as surprising as it is almost palpable. The writing is just great(!), even while we wonder . . .

In spite of some occasional but obvious editorializing, some over-writing of passages and a mock-heroic tone in Book I that was initially very off-putting, I would still say Atonement is a tightly controlled work of Art. With elements of suburban idyll, class-based historical melodrama, and gritty war time realism, it risks a lot on this stylistic chowder and wins the bet. McEwan makes the various modes of narration serve the basic story of Briony's idea of, and attempt at, redemption(?). Though there is a definite confusion of "voices" at various points in the course of the narrative - especially near the beginning - I would encourage readers to go on, to suspend disbelief a little longer than they might otherwise deem wise or acceptable. (This is the new aesthetic, after all.) The narrative equivocation is an intentional device, I think, and the ultimate payoff is worth the indulgence, even while we wonder . . .


  1. I agree - its a remarkable book. I wrote on my blog about its synergy with L P Hartley's The Go Between which also focuses on the destruction of a child's psyche through getting involved with adult affairs.

  2. Hi Tom,
    interesting that you put it that way ("the destruction of a child's psyche . . ."), though that has not been my take.
    Seeing Briony as a victim, it seems to me, would completely undercut the meta-fictive "Moral", if you will, that overlies "Atonement". You see, I took the point to be that Briony stands in, so to speak, for McEwan, while we, the readers, stand in for her adoring family and fans of her fiction. To make that work, she has to be the willing perpetrator - the lier - not the victim. No?
    Just a thought. And thanks for looking in!