I’m glad to report that I fell for Ian McEwan’s literary sleight of hand in Atonement. I knew blessedly little about the novel when I picked it up to read it, little more, in fact, than it was earning acclaim from every quarter following its release in 2001. As I recall, I bought it at a Border’s (remember those?) off of the two-for-three paperback table. I had a distinct progression through the book, which I think fell nicely in line with McEwan’s intent. I found the first segment–set at the Tallis estate as the forthright, precocious young Briony misunderstands an incident she spies, with devastating results–to be absolutely dazzling as McEwan patrolled the perceptions and reactions of a small fleet of characters, an approach that transcended literary device to get at the book’s overarching theme of the elusiveness of truth when we rely on our decidedly unreliable senses that tear situations away from their greater contexts. The middle passage takes place during World War II, relaying the different paths traveled by star-crossed lovers Cecilia Tallis and Robbie Turner as well as that of the now grown Briony, tending to the war-wounded as a nurse. As I tread those these pages, my enthusiasm began to lag. I was somewhat disappointed by the comparatively conventional storytelling and the unlikely swerve towards a happy ending for the characters who had been hurt the most.
As it turned out, my softening appreciation suited McEwan’s purposes just fine, as the final portion of the novel focuses on Briony in old age, now a celebrated author. It is revealed that the portions of the book that preceded this were actually the handiwork of Briony, a novel within a novel, done up with an expert disguise. The “truth” of the story is far grimmer, and what was presented within the pages of Atonement was Briony’s autobiographical attempt to write a better outcome for her heartbroken sister and a braver one for herself. I can’t recall if only the middle sections of the entire book up to that point is meant to be Briony’s fiction. Some summaries imply the latter, although I remember it (or maybe prefer to think of it) as Briony’s invention bookended the reality of her life.
I suspect I’ve read McEwan as much as or more than any other author in recent years. He is the writer I always return to with the certainty that the material will be marvelously constructed, emotionally thoughtful and rife with memorable imagery. On the last point, one of the greatest compliments I can pay to director Joe Wright’s 2007 film adaptation of Atonement is that the images I held in my head most vividly from the book–such as Cecilia emerging from the fountain and Briony moving purposefully through her home, pivoting harshly as she turned corners–were realized to perfection, a rare instance of the necessary compromise of tangible recreations living up to the proprietary certainty of the mind’s eye. It’s especially impressive because McEwan doesn’t strike me as whose work begs for adaptation. It always seems precisely right on the page, where the author can unobtrusively burrow into the thoughts and internal contradictions of the characters. Something like On Chesil Beach is almost nothing but that, and the pleasure is observing McEwan tease out the intricacies of humble, moving lives.
Sometimes great writers inspire me to try harder when I smash words together into structures resembling cogent sentences. McEwan achieves the opposite: his prose is so sharp and refined that I feel a little internally defeated, wanting to never again try to express myself in that manner. Why bother? I can’t do that. By definition, we’re both “writing,” but the evidence on the page suggests that McEwan is actually doing something quite different, something that deserves its own new piece of terminology.