Ian McEwan’s latest novel is a dark, sleek trap of a book. It lures its readers in with the promise of a morality tale set in an English country manor in 1935. There will be a crime, we learn, and so far the novel’s furnishings are at once cozy and exciting; we expect a certain kind of entertainment from this setup, not an Agatha Christie mystery by any means — McEwan is a literary author with a reputation for the macabre — but a story that permits us to observe any wrongdoing from a comfortable distance. Once we’re caught in his snare, though, McEwan takes us deep into far more menacing territory.
The house belongs to the Tallis family, and the first member introduced is the soon-to-be criminal, 13-year-old Briony, who is writing a play to be performed by herself and her three visiting cousins. Her mother Emily lies upstairs, nursing one of her chronic migraines and waiting for her husband to phone to tell her he’s spending the night in London. Her restless older sister, Cecilia, frets about the unaccountable new awkwardness in her relationship to Robbie Turner, son of the family’s cleaning woman and her childhood playmate. Everyone awaits the arrival of the adored eldest, Leon, who’s bringing along his friend, Paul Marshall, an industrialist with big plans to sell candy-coated chocolate bars to the army in the increasingly likely event of England declaring war on Germany.
At first McEwan unspools the action languidly, adopting the viewpoint of several different characters as they move through the sultry summer day and toward the fateful, moonless night. There’s fussing about the dinner, the concoction of what sounds like the most disgusting cocktail ever devised, lost socks, a broken vase and, behind all this, large, ominous emotions shifting their way to the surface. The most violent acts of the day happen offstage, so to speak, but the most enduringly destructive one is a lie Briony tells, a lie that will ruin two lives and overshadow her own for decades.
Lying is, after all, what “Atonement” is about as much as it is about guilt, penitence or, for that matter, art. Briony, who, we are told, will grow up to become a celebrated novelist, is consumed with the creation of stories, and that is partly what compels her to swear allegiance to her terrible lie. But she has also grown up swimming in falsehood. There’s the class status of her family, for example: their stately home is a practically brand-new vulgarity filled with “mostly junk” (including a portrait of “an aristocratic family … thin-lipped and pale as ghouls” whose identity no one knows, hung to “lend an impression of solidity” to the household), all of it paid for by a grandfather “who grew up over an ironmonger’s shop and made the family fortune with a series of patents on padlocks, bolts, latches and hasps.” Then there’s her parents’ marriage, organized around a polite refusal to acknowledge Emily’s husband’s infidelity.
Of the lies people tell themselves to make life more palatable, however, some are more dangerous than others. Briony’s coming of age involves a hard lesson in the difference. The one incident of unvarnished honesty in the first half of “Atonement,” an accident, leads to a moment of galvanic connection, the realization of love. The rest of the book, however, follows both Robbie Turner and Briony as, five years later, they make long, grueling sojourns among brute realities that refuse to be ameliorated by attractive stories.
He joins the ragged retreat of British troops to Dunkirk in 1940; she, saturated with guilt, becomes a nurse in a London hospital, tending the wounded. The truths they collide with are rooted in the incontrovertible vulnerability of the body, the irrevocable nature of certain harms. He is haunted by the image of a child’s severed leg, the remnant of a bomb blast, wedged in the fork of a tree. She is witness to how “every secret of the body was rendered up — bone risen through flesh, sacrilegious glimpses of an intestine or an optic nerve. From this new and intimate perspective she learned that a person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn, not easily mended.”
In the closing pages of “Atonement,” in the voice of the aged Briony, McEwan contemplates her (and by implication every novelist’s) “offences against veracity” — and he delivers a wicked twist. Briony asks herself “How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?” The question about atonement goes back to the root of the word: it means to be “at one,” and sometimes refers to the sacrifice by which Jesus united man and God. A human being who becomes God in the act of creating fiction, though, is only all-powerful within that fictional world. Briony knows she will be forced yet again to see that what is torn in the flesh can’t be mended by stories. The belief that it can may just be one of the more pleasant lies we tell ourselves.
Our next pick: An innocent, sensual woman falls into the hands of a killer