Warning – review contains spoilers, since there’s no way to discuss the book’s merits without discussing the ending.
Ian McEwan’s Atonement is a wonderful novel undone in just sixteen pages, the length of an ill-considered epilogue that says the first 95% of the novel doesn’t mean anything like what you thought it meant. It succeeds from a critical perspective, but as a reader, I felt cheated.
The atonement in question revolves around Briony, the thirteen-year-old daughter of the Tallis family, and the way she lets a girlish fantasy and her lack of knowledge of adult relations (physical and emotional) spiral out of control, thus ruining the lives of two people close to her. McEwan has to stretch a little to get to the critical sequence where Briony falsely accuses a man of rape, including the use of a vulgarity I won’t repeat here and that would be almost out of the question for the man in question to have used in that fashion, but in general, the way he progresses through the novel’s first 95% is strong. The seemingly omniscient third-person narrator takes us inside the heads of the three central characters, and there’s a single jump in time that pushes the plot forward past several years where nothing of direct relevance happens, which turns out to be a solid decision that allows the second sequence of events to coincide with (and create parallels to) the dark opening of World War II. The book’s pacing and prose have the feeling of classic 19th century British literature, and while there’s no confusing Atonement with Jane Austen’s work, there’s no doubt McEwan drew Briony as the flip side of Northanger Abbey‘s Catherine Morland.
McEwan himself is an outspoken atheist, thus the novel’s central theme of a search for earthly redemption without reference to or hope for a spiritual one or one in an afterlife. (To be clear, religion or lack thereof is not an explicit theme in the novel.) Briony’s search for redemption – what she calls atonement, but what really is an external forgiveness from both of the parties she so directly wronged – affects her choices early in life, driving her away from education into a nursing job that takes on importance after the war comes home to Britain during the evacuation of British troops from France in 1941. Thus limited by the need for a redemption in the here and now, she seeks out her estranged sister to try to bring about a reconciliation through admission of her own crime.
Or does she? McEwan throws the entire book into doubt in a muddled, tacked-on epilogue. Is what came before a full representation of the actual history of events? An incomplete one? A complete fiction? Briony tells us how, as an author, she can play God and rewrite events, but can not ultimately redeem them – or herself, or fix the lives she ruined. But what then is the responsibility of McEwan? This is his universe, his reality. He can give Briony the atonement she desires, in full or in part. But he needs to be honest with his readers. In fact, by not telling us until that 95-percent mark that what we have read to that point is a meta-novel, a fictional work within a fictional work, with most details true to the fictional reality (stay with me) but some not, and oh-by-the-way he isn’t even clear in the final pages how much of the preceding novel is reality, he’s dishonest with his readers, using our credulous nature – that we step into a novel prepared to believe its reality, to suspend our disbelief, to accept the characters as real people as long as they’re drawn true to life – to his advantage to pull a nasty trick on us. Instead of a deeper look at redemption, atonement, or just plain old-fashioned forgiveness, McEwan turns the book into a writer’s lament, that one can not undo reality or even find catharsis through fictionalizing real-life events and altering them to suit one’s needs. Well, no shit, Ian.
On page 334, I was prepared to praise Atonement as a clever, well-written work with expertly crafted characters and brilliant descriptive prose. In sixteen pages, McEwan tore that opinion apart, turning the book into a wicked bit of sleight of hand that still has the same characterization and prose but that proves terribly unsatisfying as an actual novel because of the betrayal of the reader’s trust.