Ian McEwan's 'Atonement': A novel of epic truthfulness

On Books

March 17, 2002|By Michael Pakenham

Ian McEwan, an accomplished and recognized British writer, has produced a masterwork, a novel of artistry, power and truth that puts it among the most extraordinary works of fiction of the last decade. The novel is Atonement (Doubleday, $26), a 448-page tour de force, which should confirm McEwan's position as a very major novelist.

The book is divided into three large sections and an epilogue. The first part is set in an English country house in 1935, when the central character, Briony Tallis, is 13. Second, in 1940, is a searing, compelling account of the retreat of the British Army to Dunkirk, punctiliously researched and one of the most powerful accounts of the agony of war I have ever read. The third, also in 1940, is a narrative of Briony's excruciating emergency training as a nurse, followed by the horrors of treating the maimed and dying evacuees from Dunkirk. The epilogue, seen again through Briony's eyes, is set in 1999, when she is 77 and a successful novelist, looking back.

At the book's beginning, Briony is willfully imaginative, yearning to be a playwright and to succeed at everything life might offer. She is the youngest of three children; Cecelia, who is older by 10 years, is still at home, a large but rather ugly country house kept up by servants and surrounded by lawns, a lake and the trappings of privilege. An older brother no longer lives at home. Emily, the mother, spends much of her time in bed, suffering from or warding off migraines. Jack, the father, is a senior civil servant. He spends most of his time in London, and quite obviously has a lover.

Briony has written a play, The Trials of Arabella, ostensibly in honor of a visit by three cousins, the more-or-less castoff children of Emily's sister and her estranged husband. She has given all the cousins roles and insists on intense rehearsals that she quite imperiously directs, but she's out-maneuvered for the lead role by the eldest of the cousins, Lola, 15, and petulantly cancels the performance.

Cast is full

The other principal character is Robbie Turner, who's just finished Cambridge, the son of the Tallises' cleaning woman, whose upbringing and education have been sponsored by Jack Tallis, and who functions as a sort of second-rung member of the family. A university pal of the Tallis son and various servants and functionaries fill out the cast.

If all that sounds awfully intricate, it is. But such is McEwan's mastery of form and technique that the narrative is never cluttered. I found the book never flagged, was almost impossible to put down.

The text goes from Briony's vantage point to that of her sister, Cecelia. Then it shifts to Emily. By a quarter of the way into the book, McEwan has shown that he can understand the hearts and minds of his characters -- whether they're men or women, teen-agers or adults.

These psychological portraits weave a rich fabric of attitudes -- English attitudes, but actually those of a far wider swath of humanity.

Against the long-lined narrative, McEwan sustains electric suspense with attention to soft but embracing detail of conversations, sensations, surroundings, casual domesticity.

The fulcrum event of the book is a spiteful lie told by Briony. It is an act of perjury that sends an innocent man to prison, and blights a number of other lives and changes forever the relationships and roles of everyone in sight.

McEwan has an almost magic understanding of children and the self-centeredness that is the essence of childhood. He has a mastery of interweaving tiny details, perfect phrases, little flashes that return to the story, sometimes a hundred and more pages later, binding the story firmly together.

Deftly, he uses occasional, widely separated, glances forward in time as a sort of narrative glue. Of Robbie, on the threshold of a minor choice on the fateful night, McEwan writes, "This decision, as he was to acknowledge many times, transformed his life."

Childhood cruelty

The searingly painful, inescapable tension of the book, the core dilemma of the drama, arises from the abject cruelty of adolescents -- of adolescence. Certitude overwhelms evidence, arbitrariness seems like considerateness. There are seeds of the core of William Golding's 1954 Lord of the Flies and Richard Hughes' 1929 A High Wind in Jamaica, two classic explorations of youth.

Near the book's end, Briony, now 77, and surrounded by the affection of family and friends, reflects that "There was a crime. But there were also the lovers. ... It occurs to me that I have not traveled so very far after all, since I wrote The Trials of Arabella. Or rather, I've made a huge digression and doubled back on my starting place."

In large measure, the book is about the latent evil that lurks in certitude. McEwan never preaches He's much too artful. To try to distill the complexities and ambiguities of a work of art into slogans is to misapprehend the very essence of art. But it would be very hard to read this truth-filled novel without being drawn, once again, to the prayer: God save us from True Believers, for what they believe is so often not true.

I have read carefully only two of McEwan's other books -- Amsterdam, his last before Atonement, which I found superb, focused, courageous, and The Comfort of Strangers, which also was memorable reading. Beyond those, he has written six other novels, two collections of short stories, three screen plays and the libretto for an oratorio.

But reading this book is an experience to remember -- and savor. I found every page riveting. It is, quite simply, magnificent -- a masterpiece, without a single sentence of moralizing.

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