Atonement by Ian McEwan
What did it win?
W. H. Smith Literary Award 2002
What’s it all about?
Thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis falsely accuses a young man of rape. She spends the rest of her life imagining how she will atone.
Was it really any good?
Very good. The kind of novel that might almost have been written a hundred years ago – which isn’t a backhanded compliment (in this case), but a sad comment on the state of the art of fiction.
The major knock against it is the structure. The long middle section dealing with Robbie Turner on the retreat to Dunkirk seems particularly awkward. And yet the fact remains that this book has a total structure. Speaking of Harold Pinter, the British film critic Leslie Halliwell once characterized postmodern writing as intelligence without meaning and plot without structure. Whether the latter point was an academic outgrowth of chaos theory and “resistance to closure”, part and parcel of magic realism’s affinity for wandering, fabulous narratives, an artistic surrender to Eliot’s chaos of modern life, the product of too many memoir-style novels, or just plain laziness on the part of the author, I find myself agreeing with Halliwell more and more. Too many novels these days just . . . go . . . on. Are these authors only throwing clay at their editors and expecting them to give it a shape? Not McEwan.
That Atonement is such a deliberately crafted work is only part of its old-fashioned charm. This is a book that summarizes a whole century of fiction writing. At times it seems as though McEwan is trying to do for the twentieth-century novel what Joyce did with the English language in the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter of Ulysses, but in a way that takes the novel out of history (progress, evolution) and into that imaginative space where all great works of art maintain a present existence. Take the nature of the narrative. For any student of modern and postmodern fiction the questions will be familiar: Is McEwan really playing with different centres of consciousness? Just how conventional is that middle section? How are any of the parts meant to relate? Is Briony a “reliable” narrator? Are we reading Briony’s book?
All of this also means that McEwan risks making Atonement too self-consciously literary. Whenever I come across a character in a novel who spends a lot of time reading I start to get the feeling that this is another novel about the writing of novels, and that maybe I should just go and watch TV. McEwan walks a fine line, but Briony is such a believable and engaging fantasist, and her predilection for creating fictions is such an integral part of the story, it all works. The book talk never seems heavy-handed. And, as passages like the discourse on “cunt” make clear, McEwan is obviously enjoying himself:
the word was at one with its meaning, and was almost onomatopoeic. The smooth-hollowed, partly enclosed forms of its first three letters were as clear as a set of anatomical drawings. Three figures huddling at the foot of the cross.
How wonderfully imagined! Then you think of the anatomical drawings in Robbie’s medical text which gave rise to his letter, and go on to consider the three figures as the three main female characters, Robbie as Christ, a foreshadowing of Briony’s atonement . . . Who cares if the “almost onomatopoeic” part doesn’t make a whole lot of sense?
The novel does have an uneven pace. Nothing quite measures up to the first section, leaving me to wonder if McEwan made a mistake in leaving his usual “to be read in one night” comfort zone. But in every other way Atonement is a triumph. Little aggravations in the writing – living so close to Toronto, I have to take special exception to the improbable description of German dive bombers circling “like Raptors” – are offset by the care taken in designing the whole.
Is there time for a word about Robbie and Cecilia in the library? Well, it’s some of the best sex I’ve ever read.