I’ve just finished re-reading part two of Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Having got of prison early in exchange for enlisting, Robbie’s in the midst of wartorn France, with death and atrocities all around him. He’s retreating to the coast and trying to focus on Cecilia waiting for him across the channel.
It’s a strange juxtaposition after the single atrocity in the midst of the civilisation of the manor in the first section; McEwan never takes us quite where we expect.
Towards the end of the section is the key to the connection:
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 wasn’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… You killed no-one today? But how many did you leave to die?(261)
The tide of blood in war, the constant atrocities, drown out that one atrocity, that one event that changed everyone’s lives back at the manor. When we learn, later on, that it’s Briony writing this, the juxtaposition of her crime and the war might make us think her innocent by comparison. Or at least dilute the magnitude of what she did. (Of course, she can’t forgive herself that easily but she’d like to.)
I found this part less compelling, less insightful than the first part, but then the first part is one of my favourite pieces of writing ever.