I first began reading Ian McEwan when Black Dogs came out a decade ago; subsequently I started collecting and reading all his novels. Combining a shrewd narrative sense with acute psychology, he often manages to pick subjects that push him and his reader into the borderlands of ordinary life where the bizarre and the everyday regularly collide or intersect.
Atonement fits that pattern but in a decidedly more naturalistic way; indeed, it may be the least eccentric of all, consciously echoing, as it does, the novels of Jane Austen (who provides the epigraph) and Henry James with their omniscient narrators, expansive plots and acute awareness of class. In fact, the first half of the novel might be labeled a drawing room comedy that takes a tragic turn, while the second gives us a war story with all its horror and grittiness.
The year is 1935, England’s hottest summer in memory. The Tallises live in an inherited country house outside London. Mr. Tallis works long hours in London for the government, secretly estimating the damages to be expected from air attacks and, incidentally, avoiding his wife’s migraines and listless supervision of their two grown and one teenage child. And then there is Robbie Turner, son of the housekeeper, who has grown up with the Tallis children and has become Mr. Tallis’s social betterment project. Cecelia Tallis and Robbie have just come down from Cambridge, where he took top honors and she just got by, and where they moved in decidedly different social and intellectual circles.
Renegotiating their relationship on home turf is proving awkward, a fact not lost on Briony, Cecelia’s 13-year-old sister and a burgeoning writer. Gifted with a perception beyond her years, Briony lacks judgment and only half-awarely sets in motion the novel’s tragic event. After a disastrous dinner party, a harried search ensues for the 9-year-old visiting twin nephews of Mrs. Tallis, who have decided to run away. Briony sets off on her own and stumbles in the dark upon a sexual encounter between the twins’ older sister and a mysterious figure she believes to be Robbie, for reasons that have more to do with her suspicions than her eyesight. Under questioning, likelihood soon becomes certitude, and Robbie is hauled off to trial and jail, but not before his outraged mother attacks the police car with an umbrella and Cecelia manages a last embrace, bringing the first act to a close.
Act 2 plunges us into World War II. Robbie joins up as a private to get out of prison and soon finds himself by force of character leading a motley pair of corporals on the hasty retreat to Dunkirk after Britain’s first, disastrous invasion of France. But before that he has a brief reunion in London with Cecelia, who has cut off all contact with her family. Their faith in and love for each other are their sole sustenance, along with Briony’s promise to recant her testimony.
Robbie carries Cecelia’s last letter as a talisman against the aimless slaughter that surrounds him. His determination to return carries him past mad officers intent on one last stand against the Stukas and the sadism of his own frustrated comrades at Dunkirk. Reflecting on Briony’s possible motivation shocks him back to an early memory of her capriciousness, risking her life in the local river to prove that he would risk his to save her.
The third act follows Briony’s wartime penance as a nurse and her emerging career as a writer. She meets Robbie and Cecelia briefly to confess her sin but is ready neither to forgive nor forget, and both are astounded by the identity of the real culprits, whose wedding she has just attended.
This is a capacious novel, written with a keen awareness of the great tradition of English fiction; it is also considerably longer than any of McEwan’s earlier ones. Had it not been for the Booker Prize he received for Amsterdam, a superb thriller, in 1998, Atonement might well have won Britain’s most prestigious literary award last year. Happily, it may also be the one by which most readers in America will remember him, since it held a longtime spot midway on The New York Times bestseller list, a literary standout amid the usual collection of espionage, murder and romance novels.
Ian McEwan’s rich sense of irony will no doubt appreciate all of these publishing anomalies, since the concluding pages of Atonement offer their own twist on the book you have just read. Suffice it to say that the book’s tragic and comic elements achieve a fitting resolution that does justice both to the harsh realities of the real world and the more satisfying requirements of the imagination.