Novels that feature writers as protagonists almost always remind me of the fact that, when I read, I am essentially forcing myself to hallucinate based on inky squiggles on a piece of pulped tree. Reading is really weird when you think about it. And yet, I will still argue with every fiber of my being that stories hold truths. Ian McEwan’s Atonement is the most elegant expression of both the power of story to shape reality while also reminding us how powerful that story can be once it sinks its hooks into you.
Briony Tallis is the kind of character that I loved to hate. She’s incredibly selfish. She’s got control issues. She’s jealous of almost everyone in her family. Her desire to write just seems to make it all worse. The fact that she can’t control the living people around her the way she can the characters she creates frustrates her no end. Allowances might be made for her, given that she’s barely 13 years old when we meet her in the hot summer of 1935 at her family estate, but she has more power than any 13-year-old should. In her arrogance, she ruins two lives (possibly more).
The first half of Atonement tells the story of the bare handful of days that summer that changed everything. We see Briony putting the finishing touches on her dreadfully baroque novel, then getting annoyed with the lack of enthusiasm from the visiting cousins she’s pressed into service as actors. We also see her sister, Cecelia’s frustration with her place at home. She’s at the awkward age where she’s struggling to become an independent adult while her parents imagine that she will follow the path of marriage and motherhood. Meanwhile, Cecelia and an old family friend, Robbie, realize that they are in love with each other. As the reader, we have a broader view than any of the characters. We know what’s really going on in the scenes that Briony consistently misinterprets. Plus, Briony is telling us the story from much later and she is liberal with the hints that she does something terrible and unforgivable that summer. The tension is almost unbearable while I waited to find out what she did.
The last half of the book tells the story of what happened to Robbie just before the Dunkirk Evacuation and to Briony as she learns how to be a military nurse. Then there’s an extended epilogue that turns everything we’ve read on its head. To say anymore would ruin the effect of the book, so I’ll stop with the plot summary.
Atonement is the kind of book I absolutely adore. Not only are the characters so fully realized that I could see them in my head (although sneaky peeks at the imdb listing for the 2007 film didn’t hurt) and the setting so well drawn that I felt like I was wilting in the summer heat along with the characters, but it also plays around with story in ways that I just love. Because Briony, even as a child, is a writer, she is constantly thinking about the best way to tell a story. How should it end? What should the reader think and feel after reading that story? Ultimately, she wonders if a great story can overwrite the appalling thing she did. Through her story, she is asking us to forgive her, if we can.
I read this book is great big gulps over the course of one day. It is so well done, so masterfully constructed, that I completely agree with the hype that surrounds it. The critics are right about Atonement. Some readers may be annoyed with some of the more obvious writerly touches (echoes, very pointed letters, etc.), but those touches were catnip for me. I enjoyed the book so much I’m a little reluctant to return it to the library. I kind of want to put it on my shelf so that I can reread it whenever I like and see McEwan at work through fantastically awful Briony. Before I reread Atonement, however, I need to let the bruises on my heart heal first. This book packs a hell of a wallop.