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AtonementReview - Atonement
A Novel
by Ian McEwan
Anchor, 2001
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Sep 9th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 37)

Ian McEwan's novel Atonement starts off with the theme of a fiction within fiction. Thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis is putting on a production of a play she herself has written. It is a short piece titled The Trials of Arabella, and she envisions herself playing the title role, but her older cousin Lola takes it for herself. What's more, her two younger cousins, Jackson and Pierrot, are half-hearted participants, and ruin the effect of her carefully written lines.

It is the summer of 1935 and the threat of war is already looming over the wealthy family. Briony's sister Cecilia has just graduated with degrees in English from Cambridge University, at the same time as Robbie Turner, son of the Tallis' housekeeper. Both their educations were paid for by Cecilia's father, Jack Tallis who was happy to act as Robbie's patron in the spirit of a philanthropic social experiment. Cecilia and Robbie did not meet often when they were at Cambridge, and their relationship seems strained by their different social positions, but it becomes clear that they both harbor repressed passions for each other.

Briony plays a destructive role in the developing romance between Cecilia and Robbie, her interference brought on by her misunderstanding what she sees around her, and her misunderstanding caused largely by assumptions about class and gender. The novel hints that she herself will go on to become an acclaimed author, and it seems this episode in her life is a crucial one for her, although it only becomes clear how crucial at the end of the novel.

Part Two of the novel is set several years later, during the Second World War. Robbie at this stage is in France during the British retreat through Dunkirk, and McEwan devotes some of his most powerful writing to the description of the atrocities of war and the way that Robbie has to focus on his own survival rather than the plight of others. We also see Briony start work as a nurse, having to face the terrible injuries of soldiers. She too finds ways to cope, finding her life transformed by circumstances, and yet still feeling the burden of the effects of her immature actions in that summer of 1935. She does not have to be a nurse, but she chooses to partly in an effort to atone for the damage she caused to her family.

Many reviewers have hailed this novel as McEwan's best. His early collections of short stories and short novels such as First Love, Last Rites, In Between the Sheets and The Cement Garden took pleasure in their own perversity, flirting with taboo subjects while maintaining an emotional distance from their characters largely through the almost poetic use of language. His early work has an adolescent quality to it, skillfully styled yet refusing to engage in profound analysis of the lives he describes. Atonement is certainly a weightier work, achieving an unusual moral seriousness through its setting of wartime Britain and its investigation of how one day's events can transform a whole life. Nevertheless, there are also clear similarities between this work and his earlier work. McEwan is still drawn to the theme of youthful sexuality, and of innocent and not-so-innocent children. Furthermore, without giving away the end of the novel, I'd suggest there's a sense of cleverness to the writing that is reminiscent of his earlier work. He still takes some pleasure in some game-playing with his reader, although in this work he does with in a way that fits well with the themes of the book, making for a more satisfying whole.

Ultimately, Atonement leads the reader to contemplate the moral power of a novelist in telling stories, and what the writing of a novel can accomplish as an ethical action. It's tempting to postulate McEwan's identification with the young author Briony, who is of course also his creation. If he does identify with her, and her arguably futile efforts to make amends through her writing, then it follows that he has reservations about the work of a novelist, and he has reservations about the very project of writing. This novel, in its unflinching engagement with war and family strife, might be an effort to be more serious and transcend the limitations of the form. It is certainly a powerful work, worth careful contemplation.

 

© 2002 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.


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