With its intricate backward fairy tales, its deliciously stagy scenes, its telescoped time scheme, its forest of allusions, its narrative once-overs and doublings-back, its sharp questions about the experience of fiction, Ian McEwan’s Atonement seems less a story than a soulful game. The British writer’s ninth novel — a page-turner combining the propulsive sweep of ”Enduring Love” (1998) with the psychological precision of ”Amsterdam” (1999) — is driven less by plot than by a steady richness of feeling.
Summer of 1935, the English countryside, a heat wave. First phrase: ”The play.” At age 13, veteran fiction writer Briony Tallis has crafted her theatrical debut, a tidy melodrama about a reckless heroine, a wicked count, and a gallant prince — the work of a child ”possessed by a desire to have the world just so.” The cast members are her visiting cousins — mewling 9-year-old twin boys and their 15-year-old sister, the perfumed Lola. (Reading a novel this thick with reference, you feel sorry for a Lola as soon as you see her name.) The audience is to be Briony’s brother, Leon, a sweet and dopey banker in from London with a friend who’s made a fortune in the chocolate-bar business. The show doesn’t go on. The thespian ineptitude of the homesick twins knows no limits, and Briony, already frustrated by the impossibility of total control, has found her imagination seized by a scene she glimpsed through the nursery window — a spat between her older sister, Cecilia, and one Robbie Turner.
Cecilia is just finished with Cambridge, now lingering at home, ”bored and comfortable.” She is, effectively, playing hostess this weekend while the Tallis father looms in the background, at work in London, and Mother’s pinned in bed by a migraine. (McEwan, writing with typically impeccable prose, will make you wince at the force of her headache: ”There were illuminated points in her vision, little pinpricks, as though the worn fabric of the visible world was being held up against a far brighter light.”) For a love life, Cecilia shares an unresolved tension with Robbie, the ”only son of a humble cleaning lady.” The two barely spoke at Cambridge but are now forced to confront mutual desire. He writes her a letter, then mistakenly passes along the rough draft, which confesses, ”In my dreams I kiss your….” Well, he kisses her pudenda’s dirtiest synonym. Briony, entrusted as a delivery girl, reads the letter and classes Robbie a maniac, a view only reinforced when, snooping around at cocktail hour, she interrupts the couple in library-floor coitus and interprets it as an attack.
By evening, the twins, now thoroughly unhinged, have run away. The rest of the party heads out to find them. In the dark of the woods, Briony comes upon a trembling Lola. She’s been raped, and Briony wills herself to believe she witnessed Robbie at the crime scene: ”The truth was in the symmetry…. The truth instructed her eyes.” But hasn’t a servant’s teenage son been ”hanging around the children”? And wasn’t the choco-millionaire avidly giving her candy?
This synopsis takes us halfway through the book; the rest is retrospection — told, mainly, through the prism of the WWII retreat from Dunkirk and its aftermath. Refracting an upper-class nightmare through a war story, McEwan fulfills the conventions he’s playing with, and that very play — in contrast to so much fashionable pomo cleverness — leads to genuine heartbreak.
”Atonement” is, in several senses, Briony’s story. She’s both a sympathetic villain and a tarnished hero, and the wrinkles of her mind are the book’s deepest mystery and organizing principle. With muscle, with delicacy — and within the confines of extreme artificiality — the author makes this character bloom into a person. Think of Borges and Nabokov. Think of the poet Marianne Moore’s idea of ideal poetry, ”imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Six decades after the main action of the novel, half a page from the end, we’re posed a question: ”How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?” Its placement may make this theme look tagged on, but by the time the reader reaches it, it acts as an amplification that sends us Möbius-stripping back to the start of this supreme fiction.