Onyx reviews: Atonement
by Ian McEwan
There is no atonement for God, or novelists, Briony Tallis writes in the
closing pages of Atonement. This is because novelists have the ultimate power of
Briony has much to atone for. Her actions in the summer of 1935, when she was
thirteen, profoundly affected her family's future. Ian McEwan masterfully
constructs a series of seemingly innocent and unrelated events that ultimately
become an unopposable pressure converging on the crime Briony commits that
evening. Readers are aware of the impending crime—it is told on the dust
jacket—and it is useful knowledge. McEwan is miserly in revealing details. He
teases readers with foreshadowings that lend desperate urgency to his story. A
crime seems unthinkable in this pastoral setting.
Atonement is a Merchant-Ivory kind of story. It begins in a rural British estate
where numerous arrivals lead to momentous events. Briony's sister, Cecilia, has
returned from Cambridge with a third-class diploma. Cecilia's lifelong friend,
Robby, abandoned by his father, also returns with a first-class degree and
aspirations of medical school. Briony's brother Leon is also scheduled to
arrive, bringing an ambitious friend with ideas on how to capitalize on the
inevitable war. Also new in the household are Briony's cousins, refugees from a
bitter domestic civil war. Briony's mother, Emily, has been in fragile health
since Briony's birth—she spends afternoons cloistered in her room to ward off
the threat of migraines. Briony's father is rarely present, using the excuse of
a demanding Civil Service job to remain in London.
The events that lead to Briony's crime are simple and unassuming. She has
written a play to celebrate Leon's arrival and is intent upon having her cousins
play in it. This will help distract them from their dislocation and uncertain
future. The disintegration of the play, a broken vase, a misdirected letter,
misinterpreted actions seen from afar and juvenile caprice collide at the end of
the twenty-four period which makes up the first half of Atonement.
McEwan lets the story evolve slowly and naturally, showing readers events from
numerous viewpoints. In doing this, he demonstrates how individual
preconceptions cloud understanding of what is going on. Without delving
intimately inside the minds of any one character, he skillfully describes their
thought patterns, the sometimes-tenuous chains of reasoning that lead to
conclusions. He shows how several people can observe an event and construct
totally different interpretations. Chillingly, he discloses how quickly
someone's life can be ruined by such misinterpretations.
After the events of 1935, Atonement leaps forward to a grueling World War II
vignette as three soldiers flee on foot across France, part of the British
retreat against the unstoppable German advance and the deadly Luftwaffe Stukas
that strafe soldiers and innocents alike. The men are bound for Dunkirk, where
they hope to find passage back to England.
Briony Tullis is now a nurse. As part of her atonement, she gave up going to
college as her sister had. Her hospital is preparing to receive the first wave
of injured soldiers being returned from the continent. In another
twenty-four-hour period, she undergoes the transition from probationer to fully
seasoned nurse. Thoughts of the injury her actions caused are never far from
Writers—and Briony Tullis has pursued her aspirations to be a novelist—have no atonement, though, because they have the power to control their
character's outcome. In a bittersweet finale, McEwan observes Briony fifty years
on, confronting her own mortality and reveals the extent to which he has
controlled the outcome of the Tullis family.
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