Atonement , by Ian McEwan. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 351 pages, $26.
Atonement will make you happy in at least three ways: It offers a love story, a war story and a story about stories, and so hits the heart, the guts and the brain. It’s Ian McEwan’s best novel, though to say so bumps two cherished favorites, Black Dogs (1992) and The Innocent (1990), down to silver and bronze. Why complain? Atonement is the work of a novelist at peak power; we may hope for more to come.
It’s the summer of 1935, in Surrey, England. A heat wave bears down on an ugly, imposing neo-Gothic country house set in an expansive park. Briony Tallis, the baby of the family, a 13-year-old at once precocious and immature, has written a play ( The Trials of Arabella ) to celebrate the weekend visit of her older brother. Left very much on her own in recent years (her brother lives in London, her father works there, her sister Cecilia has been studying at Cambridge, and her mother often takes to her bed with a migraine), Briony has immersed herself in writing. She’s in the grip of “highly focused artistic ambition”–very soon she will allow her nascent talent to wreck three lives.
Writers select and arrange; they impose order. Briony, “one of those children possessed by a desire to have the world just so,” has the ordering part down cold. She plays God, arranging her characters’ lives the way she arranges the miniature animals of her model farm (her livestock all face one way, “toward their owner–as if about to break into song”). Stories make the world tidy: “A crisis in a heroine’s life could be made to coincide with hailstones, gales and thunder, whereas nuptials were generally blessed with good light and soft breezes.” Her passion for order, a “controlling demon,” combined with a taste for melodrama, pushes her to commit a crime–one for which she’ll spend a lifetime seeking atonement.
Watching from a window, Briony observes a scene she can’t comprehend: an encounter at a fountain between her sister, Cecilia, and a young man they’ve both known all their lives, who registers on the 13-year-old’s consciousness as a collection of literary clichés: “Robbie Turner, only son of a humble cleaning lady and no known father.” (It’s the girls’ father who has paid for Robbie’s education.) The young man raises his hand (“imperiously,” Briony thinks) and Cecilia strips down to her underwear, climbs into the water, dips below the surface and climbs out. What can it mean? Briony casts Robbie as the villain: “What strange power did he have over her? Blackmail? Threats?” Her crime (she violates the Ninth Commandment: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor”) follows from that misapprehension.
In fact, as the reader knows early on, Robbie is an improbably good man. The scene at the fountain is the catalyst for a powerfully affecting love story that zigzags between passion and despair. Unfortunately for Cecilia and Robbie, Briony is discovering her true vocation (not playwright, but novelist) just as they, childhood friends, are discovering their love. Bearing false witness–Briony’s crime–is also a good description of what a lousy writer does.
Lots of careful plotting is needed to set up the crime, and Mr. McEwan packs all of it into an evening that stretches out until dawn. In the aftermath, the Tallis family is in tatters. And five years later, Robbie, his life derailed, finds himself fighting in the war as a private in the infantry. We catch up with him during the British Expeditionary Force’s 1940 retreat to Dunkirk. Mr. McEwan here changes the rhythm of the narrative. When we were in the country house, the story advanced stutter-step, in a series of overlapping accounts from a variety of perspectives. In northern France, we get a simple and starkly lucid narrative, all from Robbie’s point of view, a gorgeous, exhilarating tale of exhaustion, terror and mass confusion. Robbie’s aim is to survive, but that brute instinct is ennobled by love for Cecilia and sustained, in a place where “[n]ightmares had become a science,” by her urgent plea: ” I’ll wait for you. Come back. “
From a country house to the chaos of Dunkirk; from Dunkirk to a London hospital overflowing with wounded and dying soldiers: It’s a shock every time Mr. McEwan uproots us, especially because each setting is beguilingly vivid. In Surrey, the “faint leathery scent of cow dung” wafts through an open window; in France, the German planes strafe the retreating Brits–”the cannon fire swept on, hurtling down the column, chased by the fighter’s roar and the flicker of its shadow”; at the hospital, every new patient brings to the ward “essential elements” of the Dunkirk evacuation: “blood, oil, sand, mud, seawater, bullets, shrapnel, engine grease, or the smell of cordite, or damp sweaty battle dress.” Whether he’s describing a place or a mood, a violent gesture or a fever dream, Mr. McEwan is eerily convincing. When he’s writing at his best, he’s invisible; and he’s never less than elegant and precise.
A good novelist does more than select and arrange. There’s also a kind of imaginative engagement required, a fearless leap into wholehearted empathy. This capacity is what the 13-year-old Briony tragically lacks; it’s what she begins to acquire five years later, at that London hospital, where she’s a nurse in training, and where she confronts vicariously the chaos of battle. Nursing, her contribution to the war effort, is a kind of atonement (instead of emptying bedpans and dressing wounds, she could be reading Milton at Cambridge)–but it’s a lesser kind. Real atonement, for Briony, comes through writing.
Strange word, atonement . It comes from an at onement , the idea being that a sacrifice, at onement , allows us to be “at one” with God, and so achieve at onement . It seems to me that the title of the novel refers not only to Briony’s crime and her attempt to set it right, but also to any serious writer’s act of unstinting imaginative engagement. Novelists do violence to the world when they play God, when they impose their artificial order. Then they try their best to “atone” for this “crime” with a kind of creative compassion, which is where true understanding of character comes from. If Ian McEwan can make Briony–and Robbie and Cecilia–feel real and alive to the reader, and then (this is trickier) show us how Briony comes gradually to recognize and cherish the messy independent reality of her sister and her sister’s lover, then we have at onement . A family blown apart by a crime can be reunited, even if it takes 60 years. And we can have a novel, complex and sophisticated, composed of radically different elements, that is, finally, at one with itself. This is Atonement ‘s magical harmony: Love and war and literature working in blessed concert.
Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.