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Book Forum: FICTION   |    
Atonement
JUSTIN SIMON, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2002;159:2120-a-2121. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.159.12.2120-a
View Author and Article Information
Berkeley, Calif.

By Ian McEwan. New York, Doubleday, 2002, 351 pp., $26.00.

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In psychoanalytic lore there is a homily: In the beginning, there were novelists. Ian McEwan is not only a master storyteller, but in practicing his art he also reveals intricacies of character and relationship befitting a fine analyst. He is vividly realistic, but his attention to surface detail only sharpens the awareness of undercurrents. Atonement transects the Tallis family at three moments in time and place: 1935, in the bucolic summer setting of their English country mansion; 1940, with the British retreat at Dunkirk before the advancing German Wehrmacht and then at a London war hospital; finally, 1999, in London and a reunion in the refashioned 1935 setting. These penetrating glimpses into family, war, and old age cantilever the complex, dark sweep of McEwan’s story.

The characters are revealed nearly to their boundaries of idiosyncrasy and ordinariness. In 1935, Briony Tallis is a 13-year-old ingenue playwright who has unsuccessfully conscripted three cousins into the production of her play, which they sabotage. When it was clear that her masterpiece had to be abandoned Briony knew her only reasonable choice would be to run away, hide, and "be found by a bearded woodsman one winter’s dawn, curled up at the base of a giant oak, beautiful and dead." She doesn’t, of course, for she has other business: "When and how did her finger know to move? Was everyone else really as alive and special to themselves as she? If the answer was yes one could drown in irrelevance, but if the answer was no she was surrounded by machines." Meanwhile, inside, for Briony’s mother, "Migraine, mother love and many hours of lying still on her bed had distilled a sixth sense…fine-tuned like a cat’s whiskers of an old wireless, almost unbearably amplifying muffled noises. She lay in the dark of her house and knew everything."

The story unfolds like a ribbon of moiré that loops and crosses over itself, altering its own patterns and hues. A reviewer should not relieve the central tensions of the plot, but this much can be told. Robbie adores Cecelia, whom he has known since childhood, but a class world separates them. Home from college, he is overwhelmed by his unspoken feelings for this remote and lofty treasure. He painstakingly constructs a note that hints at his affection but by accident sends an ode to her cunt. He concludes that it would be cowardly not to confront his awful mistake and goes to the task of apology "feeling like a man who had just swallowed a suicide pill." After a hesitant, clumsy exchange it comes to pass that "her mouth tasted of lipstick and salt…daringly, they touched the tips of their tongues." This romance holds true and sustains Robbie, the most brightly promising of the young men in the 1935 sunlit summer, through horrendous challenges of prison and war.

Briony’s best intentions, formed and driven by romantic heroism, catapult her into a false act, with tragic consequences. Atonement is needed. She eschews college to become a wartime nurse and then a novelist. On her first break from hospital duty, in 1940, she finds those with whom she must make amends, but her efforts are rebuffed. Without notification of a change in authorship, this chapter is signed, "B.T. 1999." Later, Briony is revisiting the Imperial War Museum in the former chapel of old Bedlam Hospital; "where the unhinged once came to pray, scholars now gather to research the collective insanity of war." She has written about the exodus at Dunkirk and, we learn, more. McEwan’s descriptions (or are they Briony’s?) of Robbie’s war experiences are classics of evocative realism. When Robbie, lost, exhausted, and with a piece of shrapnel in his side, looks suddenly up into the nose of a strafing Stuka and is blown several feet by an exploding bomb, the reader tastes the mud and snot in his mouth. When Briony, the neophyte nurse, frantically works an overcrowded ward full of freshly mangled soldiers with missing limbs and oozing brains, death is so vividly portrayed the reader experiences Briony’s horror and helplessness.

In the final pages, at the family reunion in Briony’s honor (she has earned fame as a writer), the premiere of her 1935 play is eagerly performed by third-generation derivatives of the original cast. She sees about her the late stages of familial narcissism, the decrepitude of old age, and the fresh promise of youth, all fast fading. It becomes clear that Briony has just completed a novel identical to this one, and it is her own story. "The problem these 59 years has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?" There is no one to forgive her, and so "atonement was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all." And this book was her attempt. But within her final recollecting there is one more twist of the moiré, a detail with which McEwan wrests authorship from Briony’s romantic pen to recast her failure at atonement. There are two endings, and herewith the novelist tightens his masterful grip in which the reader has been captured for 351 pages.

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