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'Atonement' by Ian McEwan

Adolescent spies fuel plot of the British novel ‘Atonement’

Sunday, March 31, 2002

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

 
 

Atonement

By Ian McEwan

Doubleday
$26.00

   
 

An adolescent spy is at the center of McEwan’s sweeping new work as well.

Briony Tallis is 13 when the story opens on a summer day in 1935 at her family’s country house.

Left mostly on her own -- her mother suffers from migraines, her elder sister Cecilia is in a funk of boredom after an indifferent college life, and her father stays in London -- Briony becomes a writer.

She discovers the power of imagination to give her what she does not have -- an interesting life.

“A world could be made in five pages” she realizes, and those pages “seemed to vibrate in her hand with all the life they contained.”

A writer is also an observer, and what Briony sees on that day becomes the material for another one of her fictions. What she imagines did not happen, but it doesn’t stop her from making up another story, one with real consequences.

McEwan’s novel falls into three parts -- summer of 1935, the British retreat from France in the spring of 1940 and Briony’s 77th birthday in 1999.

Her accusation made on that day in 1935 sends an innocent man to prison for rape and causes a rift in her family. How Briony atones for her misdeed is the launching pad for McEwan’s speculations on the power of fiction or perhaps its limits.

The wronged man is Robbie Turner, 25, a fine student, a decent man and Cecilia’s lover. Briony witnesses their passion. She’s also read a note from Robbie to her sister, an overtly sexual message sent in error.

The shock of these experiences on her adolescent psyche both confuses and angers her.

That night, a teen-age girl staying at the country house is raped, and Briony comes to her aid. (Briony does seem to be everywhere on that day.) Robbie is the culprit, she decides, and with the moral support of her parents, Briony succeeds in punishing Robbie.

The real rapist is never caught, but Briony eventually knows who he is.

Outraged, Cecilia flees her family to become a nurse in London.

Part 2 opens five years later as Turner is caught in England’s retreat to Dunkirk. Wounded, he doggedly trudges on, propelled by the letter from Cecilia in his pocket; she has promised she’ll wait for him.

Still estranged from her family, Cecilia tells him Briony is ready to recant her accusation, perhaps clearing his name. Her younger sister, now also a nurse, steals time to work on her writing career.

Part 2 ends ambiguously, the fates of the two sisters and Turner in that terrible year of 1940 left hanging.

What McEwan has made certain is his skill as a novelist. Despite Briony’s belief that “a modern novelist could no more write characters and plots than a modern composer could a Mozart symphony,” McEwan writes characters and plots brilliantly.

From the leisurely indolence of a country home to the brutal, desperate rout of a defeated army, his prose is masterful, vivid and confident.

If he falters, it’s in Part 3, as the elderly, ailing Briony, now a successful writer, works to finish her novel based on the previous incidents. The writing becomes flat, with little emotion, as McEwan drives to put everything together.

The crux of the novel turns on what Briony does with the story of her sister and Turner. Are the lovers reunited or does the war intervene? What version will the writer write?

And what is the novelist’s purpose in choosing the direction of her story?

“The problem ... has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?” muses Briony. “There is no one, no entity or higher form she can appeal to or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her.

“It was always an impossible task and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.”

McEwan’s attempt is all anyone could want in a work of fiction.

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