Atonement

Written by Ian McEwan

Reviewed by EW

For two days I lived in another world as I fell into the novel Atonement by Ian McEwan. I could have slept in, but I wanted to know what happened, so I got up early to read on. The next night, I stayed up until 4:00 am until I was finished. That’s what a good story is all about, and it’s one of life’s great pleasures. (Summer generally allows more time for these pleasures, and you’ll find other suggestions, other recommendations from customers, following this review.)

Some people have said Atonement is slow at first. Some think it’s very sad at the end. I thought neither. The beginning is a rich, psychological probing. It reminded me a lot of two other great stories: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, and Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty. It’s a kind of cross between the two, only set in an upper class English home between the Wars. And it begins with an actual crime, so it’s dark. But the ending shows that despite fate, despite the circumstances dealt us by others— the stories they might try to write for us-- we can still define our lives by our choices. The two (ill) fated lovers choose to remain true to one another, and nothing, not prison, not war, not time can change that. In the end, love lasts.

Now, if that makes you think the book is hokey, you are wrong. In fact, if you are at all squeamish or prudish this book may not be for you. The sex-love scene has been described as one of the most provocative in recent literature. And the details of the war and hospital ward scenes are so carefully chosen, they are gruesomely vivid: the severed leg of a teenage boy wedged in the fork of a tree; an exposed jaw bone and glistening tongue made visible once a bandage is removed... “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.”

Atonement is very, very well written. But I think what’s best about the book is its questions. In Part One—the best part, in my view -- the adolescent Briony asks herself, “Was everyone else really alive as she was? For example, did her sister really matter to herself, was she as valuable to herself as Briony was? Was being Cecilia just as vivid an affair as being Briony? Did her sister also have a real self concealed behind a breaking wave, and did she spend time thinking about it, with a finger held up to her face? Did everybody, including her father, Betty, Hardman? If the answer was yes, then the world, the social world, was unbearably complicated, with two billion voices, and everyone’s thoughts striving in equal importance and everyone’s claim on life as intense, and everyone thinking they were unique, when no one was. One could drown in irrelevance. But if the answer was no, then Briony was surrounded by machines, intelligent and pleasant enough on the outside, but lacking the bright and private inside feeling she had. This was sinister and lonely, as well as unlikely. For though it offended her sense of order, she knew it was overwhelming probable that everyone else had thoughts like hers.”

In Part Two, the soldier-hero muses, “But what was guilt these days? It was cheap. Everyone was guilty, and no one was. No one would be redeemed by a change of evidence, for there weren’t enough people, enough paper and pens, enough patience and peace, to take down the statements of all the witnesses and gather in the facts. All day we’ve witnessed each others crimes. You killed no one today? But how many did you leave to die? Down here in the cellar we’ll keep quiet about it. We’ll sleep it off...”

Finally, in the last pages of the novel (Part Three) the aging author wonders “how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms.”

“But now I must sleep,” she says in the very last line. The story is over. What is held on to? What is forgotten? What lasts? What fades to oblivion? Here love lasts by not lasting. And we are left to wonder if this might not be the nature of all human things. Then again, maybe that’s because, and only because, of the atonement.