The first half of Ian McEwan's 2001 novel Atonement is perhaps the most virtuoso treatment of "that one fateful day" in contemporary fiction. It takes place during the summer of 1935 at a British estate in the Surrey Hills. The property belongs to the Tallis family, and the first character encountered is the family's youngest member, the thirteen-year-old Briony. She's a lonely, emotionally neglected girl: her sister Cecilia, 23, has spent most of the last few years at Cambridge; her brother Leon, 25, works as a banker in London; and her father, a highly placed civil servant, is almost never at home. Her mother is the only family member who is part of her daily life, and all too often her mother retreats into the bedroom, perpetually complaining of migraines. All Briony has is her fantasy life, and she whiles her time away writing stories and plays. Her three cousins, the fifteen-year-old Lola and the nine-year-old twins Jackson and Pierrot, arrive to stay during their parents' divorce, and they offer no comfort; Briony finds Lola a threat to her sense of status and security, and the twins disrupt whatever peace and order the household has to offer. But it is Briony's rivalry with her sister that, by morning the next day, throws the family into upheaval and tears it apart.
When the reader first encounters Cecilia, she is in a state of transition. She's finished up her coursework at Cambridge (being a woman, no degree is forthcoming), but she's disgusted with the family situation, and she contemplates starting a life for herself away from home. This is complicated by her tense, tentative relationship with Robbie Turner, the son of the family's housekeeper, who's the same age she is. Robbie's education, from English grammar school to Cambridge and now, apparently, to medical school, is being financed by her father. She's known him since they were seven, and she finds herself frustrated by the distance she keeps from him, and the distance he keeps from her. Her one goal before leaving home for good is to resolve whatever it is that is at issue between them.
McEwan deftly renders the apprehensiveness the two have around each other, and there's no mistaking the two are on the cusp of romance. Things escalate while Robbie is doing some landscaping work on the grounds. Cecilia comes out to put some water in a vase from the fountain, and Robbie accidentally damages the vase. Pieces from the rim fall into the fountain, and Cecilia impulsively strips to her underwear to retrieve them. He's completely taken aback by her action, partly because he feels punished by her refusal to let him help, and partly by the arousing sight of her emerging, her underwear all but translucent, dripping from the water. He can no longer deny his desire for her; he sends a note of apology for what happened, but he accidentally sends a version including a few wayward lines about his sexual fantasies of her. She confronts him in the household library that evening before dinner, and before they know it, they're passionately having sex against the shelves.
They're interrupted when Briony walks in on them. McEwan has resolved one source of tension in the story, but he uses it to develop a greater conflict. Briony also saw the scene at the fountain, and she read the--ahem--intimate note when Robbie gave it to her to pass onto Cecilia. Briony's insecurities have made her very controlling in how she deals with people; she's patronizing when she senses someone's in need, and her jealousy and anger towards Cecilia manifests itself in concern for her sister's welfare. She convinces herself that Robbie assaulted Cecilia, and that he's a threat to her well-being. McEwan builds this narrative line to a crescendo. Later that evening, the twins run away, and during the search on the grounds, Lola is attacked and raped by a member of the dinner party. Briony interrupts this as well, and although she doesn't clearly see the assailant, she becomes certain that the "maniac" Robbie is the culprit. When Robbie returns to the house that morning with the twins in tow, he's arrested for the attack on Lola, and Briony makes the note and library encounter with Cecilia known to everyone. We subsequently learn that Robbie is sent to prison on account of Briony's accusations. Cecilia, furious at both her own humiliation and the unjust treatment of Robbie, disowns her family, vowing never to speak to them again.
McEwan presents all this with the skill and assurance of a prose-fiction master. The individual chapters are told from the points of view of the different characters, and the portraits painted by their thoughts, memories, and views of their own and others' actions are exceptionally vivid. This is thanks in no small part to McEwan's gorgeous, rolling prose style, which presents everything in terms of conflict, no matter how small or large. Every sentence seems designed to keep one in anticipation for the next. The characters' arcs in the story are also extraordinarily well-developed, whether they are secondary characters or the leads. The unhappiness that compels the twins to run away progresses just as clearly as the attraction between Cecilia and Robbie. McEwan's treatment of Briony, in particular, is superb. Her insecurities are immediately apparent, as is her resentment of Lola when she feels her cousin is trying to get the better of her. One can see that resentment express itself as patronizing concern when Lola expresses her vexation at managing the twins. McEwan's handling of Briony's relationship with Lola prepares the reader for the dynamic of her attitude towards Cecelia after the library scene. This sets the stage for her climactic accusations against Robbie. McEwan's extraordinary skill leaves one breathless in anticipation for the novel's second half.
The latter parts of the novel are nothing short of astonishing, but that is meant ambivalently. The second half is divided into three sections: one dealing with Robbie's experiences as a British soldier during the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940; Briony's experiences as a trainee nurse in London around the same time; and a coda featuring Briony in 1999, now in the twilight of her career as a writer. McEwan completely abandons the orchestrated approach to narrative development that he used so brilliantly in the novel's first half. The Dunkirk and London episodes relate only obliquely to what's come before, and one often feels the references to the first half are shoehorned in. Confused, one looks to the coda to tie everything together. It does, but with a stupid postmodernist narrative conceit that leaves one wanting to fling the book across the room.
This is not meant to denigrate either the Dunkirk or London passages. The Dunkirk section, in particular, is one of the most striking depictions of war I've encountered in prose fiction. Robbie has been granted a pardon in exchange for enlisting, and he's had a brief reunion with Cecelia before heading off to serve. She maintained a correspondence with him throughout his time in prison, and she's committed to being with him after his hitch is finished. The thought of her is what keeps him going. We see the terror he and the other soldiers have of running out of provisions, their uncertainty over whether the French villagers they encounter are friendly or hostile, and, most horrifyingly, their panicked scramble to dodge the repeated German bombing and strafing runs from the air. There's no heroism to be found in trying to help the French; Robbie tries to help a young mother and her child escape the bombing, but the mother freezes, and she and the child are killed. The best the soldiers can hope for is to maintain their own humanity, which Robbie and two troopmates do when they help a RAF soldier escape a lynching from the other infantrymen. The section ends inconclusively; Robbie appears to have made it to safety, but as the preceding events demonstrate, there's no telling when or how danger will strike again. The scenes in London, which center on the desperate efforts of the London hospitals to handle the influx of casualties from Dunkirk, are almost as compelling. They also provide a happy ending of sorts to Cecelia and Robbie's relationship, as well as an opportunity for Briony to atone for what she's done to them.
Compared to the depictions of Dunkirk and the London hospital, the 1940 finale with Briony, Cecilia, and Robbie is given so little weight that it seems like an afterthought. McEwan appears to have been so committed to his depiction of England's early days during World War II that he's lost track of the story. One can't help feeling the book, despite the strength of the war passages, has gotten terribly off-track in its second half. One feels dread when one sees what McEwan has put at the end of Part Three:
It means exactly what one thinks. McEwan confirms in the coda that what we've been reading all along is the adult Briony's fictional meditation on what happened that fateful day in 1935, her speculations on Robbie's experiences in Dunkirk (she's in a correspondence with one of his fellow infantrymen), and her falsifying view of her experiences in London. (The "real" Cecilia and Robbie have no happy ending.) One wants to scream.
McEwan may think he's being clever, and that the late Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man are applauding in whatever deconstructionist hereafter they've found themselves in, but all he's accomplished is to undermine everything he's presented to the reader. That's not to say that this sort of metafictional tactic is automatically invalid, but when it works, it's invariably used for comic purposes or to resolve the mysterious aspects of the narrative up to that point. Unless one has a reasonably acute understanding of literary technique, the Dunkirk and London episodes may not come across as particularly discordant relative to the first half. The happy ending for Cecilia and Robbie, and the righting of injustice, always hangs in the air. McEwan tantalizes audiences with that happy ending, and unless he's got a conclusion that's equally compelling, he owes it to audiences to provide it. Audiences do not respond well to having the rug pulled out from under them in the manner McEwan does here; one has to look no further than the hostile reaction to the infamous "It was all a dream" season of the Dallas TV series to understand that. People expect an author to honor the emotional commitment they develop towards the story and the characters, not to treat that commitment with contempt. Perhaps McEwan underestimates the power of what he's put on the page; it's hard to believe he would undermine it like this if he respected it. Or maybe he identifies too much with the young Briony with regard to Cecilia and Robbie: his own insecurities drive him to tear the good and positive down.
Note: My review of director Joe Wright's film version of the novel is here. It expands on issues I discuss above.