Atonement manages to work as both a compelling narrative with popular appeal – the sort of novel you can recommend to people who don’t read literary fiction – and as an extended exploration of life and the nature of writing itself.
The compelling narrative comes from a strong plot and masterful control of detail. It is a love story, but a love story told mainly from the perspective of the person who has come between the lovers.
McEwan gives us two very attractive characters in Robbie and Cecilia – both young, intelligent and vibrant people. We want them to love each other, we want them to be happy.
Yet Briony is likeable in her own way too. A precocious and brilliant child who is on an awkward cusp of maturity and immaturity. Her desire to make life more dramatic, to make it black and white, good and evil leads her to decide that the rapist she saw running away from Lola must be Robbie.
Reading it the second time and knowing what was to come, I was tensely aware of all the small details that were piling up, sending events down the path that would lead to Robbie going to jail for the rape and being separated from Cecilia. What would have happened if he hadn’t added the impulsive postscript about his sexual desire for Cecilia? Or even if he’d sent the right note, the corrected one? Would he still have ended up in that passionate tryst in the library which Briony interrupts?
What if Briony hadn’t read the note? Would she still have thought Robbie a sexual maniac?
What if the twins hadn’t run away and everyone gone to search for them? Would there have been no opportunity for Paul Marshall to rape Lola?
There are what-ifs in any narrative, but McEwan handles them so well, piling them precisely and expertly.
In part two as Robbie trudges through France trying to get home to Cecilia, the narrative drive is simple and strong: his survival, which would have been suspenseful in any case, is made even more so by the knowledge that Cecilia is waiting for him and their love has been so cruelly interrupted by years in jail.
In part three, we follow Briony as she works in the wartime hospital, ‘atoning’ for her crime by forsaking her dreams and trying to help others. The narrative drive comes from the fact that just like her, we don’t know what’s going on, whether Robbie made it, until, at the end of the section and the end of the novel as she wrote it, she visits Cecilia and Robbie is there with her.
An exploration of life and writing
Everything shifts with the revelation in the epilogue ‘London, 1999’ that the preceding novel has been written by Briony Tallis, and that in ‘real life’, Cecilia and Robbie both died in the war. It breaks my heart. I’ve gone soft; I would rather things ended where they did and I didn’t have to think of the happy ending as a fiction within the fiction.
But it’s a profound epilogue. Full of wisdom about the experience of being old and looking back on life. And full of insight into writing itself.
Briony writes in first person, asking herself whether writing can be atonement, whether by creating happiness for Robbie and Cecilia she has atoned for her crime. The answer is ambiguous. The problem is that the writer is the god of her novel, and so there’s no-one higher to appeal to, no-one to forgive her for what she’s done.
Thus the final scene as the dying Briony witnesses the play that was never staged with all her family around her has a special poignance. It’s realistic about the consolations that are available in life. Even if there’s no undoing what’s done, there’s still moments like these of joy and love. Not a happy ending, but a happy scene at the end of a profound life.