Encountering Ian McEwan's prose is rather like meeting an extremely good-looking person. We experience a strange confusion of expectations. Rationally, it seems that this extraordinary surface must suffice, and yet we project and imagine far more than could ever be realized: this person, so attractive, cannot be, and yet must be, also brilliant and charming and witty; this prose, so fluid and elegant, so vivid and meticulous, cannot possibly carry, and yet must certainly carry, a narrative of great moment, insights of otherwise ineffable grandeur.
Experience teaches us, however, that good looks betoken nothing certain about their possessor; and it might be unwise to presume that McEwan's novels owe us anything greater than the textures and odors his diction so powerfully elicits, or than the satisfying musical rhythms of his sentences. Add to these not inconsiderable gifts his power to compel—because McEwan forces his readers to turn the pages with greater dread and anticipation than does perhaps any other "literary" writer working in English today—and we have before us so fine and controlled a stylist that we may imagine we cannot ask for more; surely these are pleasures enough.
But as McEwan himself, vivisectionist of the human psyche, knows so well, we are a voracious, even an insatiable, species. Beautifully evoked scenes prompt a search for meaning, an analytical will. We want not merely to be carried away—we want to know why. We want form and content seamlessly to unite, so that the story before us has about it a solid inevitability. McEwan, aware of this desire, wants to comply; it is a desire that he, too, clearly feels. In the past his fiction has acceded to that urge for narrative tidiness, often at the expense of the truest realism. But his memorable new novel, Atonement, makes clear that he is painfully alive to the dangers of that desire: the pernicious power of fine storytelling is one of the book's central themes.
Briony Tallis, thirteen at the novel's opening, is its writerly protagonist. As we meet her, she is preparing her first play, The Trials of Arabella, for a performance to mark her elder brother's visit home. Atonement's lengthy and magnificent opening section—a tour de force that in scope and in prolonged intensity outstrips the opening of McEwan's earlier novel Enduring Love (1997)—is set in Surrey at the height of summer in 1935. Briony hovers at the end of childhood but lives her fantasies with an adult fierceness, wondering to herself, "[Was] everyone else really as alive as she was? For example, did her sister really matter to herself, was she as valuable to herself as Briony was? Was being Cecilia just as vivid an affair as being Briony?" Although she knows rationally that this must be so, she is also enamored of herself as a writer, and believes that writing imbues her with greater powers.
A story was a form of telepathy. By means of inking symbols onto a page, she was able to transfer thoughts and feelings from her mind to her reader's. It was a magical process, so commonplace that no one stopped to wonder at it. Reading a sentence and understanding it were the same thing ... There was no gap during which the symbols were unravelled.
Hers is a childish and arrogant faith, dangerously let loose upon the household that surrounds her. That communication is composed of vast gaps and desperate, distant signals is something Briony will learn through suffering—her own, eventually, but more immediately other people's.
Atonement, like all McEwan's novels, is suspenseful, and it would not do to reveal all the events that unfold in this single summer evening before the war. What can be said is that Briony—awaiting the arrival of her brother, Leon, and his friend Paul Marshall while suffering the presence of her cousins Lola, Jackson, and Pierrot Quincey—witnesses a curious scene in the garden between her elder sister, Cecilia, just down from Cambridge, and a young man named Robbie Turner, a servant's son and a protégé of Tallis père who has grown up alongside the Tallis children. Cecilia is carrying flowers in a vase, over which the pair tussles, and then Cecilia strips to her underwear and plunges into the garden's fountain while Robbie looks on. Briony is old enough to recognize the complexity of what she witnesses but perhaps not old enough to see that it is a matter of reality, not of story.
She could write the scene three times over, from three points of view; her excitement was in the prospect of freedom, of being delivered from the cumbrous struggle between good and bad, heroes and villains. None of these three was bad, nor were they particularly good. She need not judge. There did not have to be a moral. She need only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that the other minds were equally alive.
And yet by her very construction of events Briony passes judgment, determines "good" and "bad": as the evening unfolds, her interpretation of each action and interaction around her is shaped by her understanding of what she has seen, and although she believes absolutely in the inevitability of the story she constructs, we can see that it is partial, in both senses of the word. Needless to say, the story Briony tells has terrible consequences.
This is, of course, vintage McEwan: the struggle between the internal life, so much more vivid than the lives outside it, and the unbending force of reality is a theme he has long explored. He has frequently led us into the fantasy worlds of the unsavory, from the haunting pedophile narrator of the early story "Butterflies"; to the menacingly nerdy Leonard Marnham, of The Innocent (1990), whose fantasies of violence against his girlfriend, Maria, are so powerful that he comes to believe she must share them; to the stalker Jed Parry, of Enduring Love, and his effects on the psyche of Joe Rose. For McEwan, the internal life may be a form of ideology as well as fantasy, a framework through which his characters construe and misconstrue the world. In Black Dogs (1992), June Tremaine's spiritual interpretation of her attack by a pair of slavering beasts on an isolated path in France in 1946 leads her to separate from her husband, Bernard, whose rationalist view guides him to politics.
But Briony is a storyteller, and in this she differs from her predecessors: she undertakes to shape and describe the world around her with, significantly, a pretense of objectivity. In so doing, however, she confuses imagination and reality as forcefully as do Leonard Marnham and the pedophile of "Butterflies." When her nine-year-old twin cousins, Jackson and Pierrot, go missing, Briony embarks on a search, and imagines them drowned in the swimming pool.
It made sense, surely, to see if the twins were there, fooling about with the hoses, or floating face-down, indistinguishable at last in death. She thought how she might describe it, the way they bobbed on the illuminated water's gentle swell, and how their hair spread like tendrils and their clothed bodies softly collided and drifted apart. The dry night air slipped between the fabric of her dress and her skin, and she felt smooth and agile in the dark. There was nothing she could not describe.
Suddenly Briony's powers of description are McEwan's, the seductions of her luscious vocabulary his. The twins have not drowned; and yet Briony has drowned them. Of what else might she be capable? The glorious prose (isn't this enough? we have wondered) is revealed to be the ultimate peril.
If Briony and McEwan are in some measure indistinguishable in this novel (and only in the novel's conclusion do we discover how profoundly this is so), there remains, owing to McEwan's subtleties, a distance between them, a distance that articulates itself in a new raggedness of form and in a self-conscious insistence on the novel's story-ness. In these two elements Atonement most closely resembles Black Dogs. That book is a tale told in retrospect, and convolutedly, through the intermediary of the narrator, Jeremy, son-in-law of the Tremaines. The scene in which June is attacked, the crux of that novel, is not revealed until the end; but it defines all that has come before, symbolically and intellectually as well as narratively, just as Atonement's opening section fatefully determines what will ensue. Atonement differs from Black Dogs, however, in that its asymmetrical, telescopic structure almost resists the McEwan penchant for resolution: part one is followed by three segments, two of which take place at the beginning of World War II—one in France, recording the fate of Robbie Turner, and the other in London, where Briony is becoming a nurse at St. Thomas's hospital. Each of these three segments is essential yet strangely discrete; and an attendant and intriguing diminuendo as the novel progresses is reversed only in the book's fourth and final section. Set in near-contemporary London, this brief first-person narrative ties the novel together. It does so neatly—perhaps too neatly for this reader's taste (and with a twist, of course)—but that very neatness is suspect in light of all that has come before, and we know that McEwan, too, knows it to be suspect.
This formal self-consciousness is inseparable from the other ways in which the story insists on its story-ness. True, McEwan has toyed with it before—in the opening sentence of Black Dogs, for example: "Ever since I lost mine in a road accident when I was eight, I have had my eye on other people's parents." We are compelled to continue, even as we absorb the sign that this is a story we are being told. In real life it is mercifully rare that children lose both parents in a car accident; in fiction, however, it happens with alarming frequency. To be thus orphaned, and to be seeking to replace missing parents, is to call upon a host of fictional forebears: Jeremy is letting us know that he is a character, however deftly and roundly drawn, rather than a person. So, too, the opening of Amsterdam (1998), which gathers Molly Lane's lovers at her funeral, echoes not experience as we know it but rather fiction and film (The Man Who Loved Women, for example). But these suggestions of artificiality are mere traces, and hence seem unwitting evidence of the well-made story rather than an intended exposition of its inner workings.
The opening of Atonement, on the other hand, overtly summons a number of literary references, and thereby insists rather volubly on its fictionality. It recalls Northanger Abbey in its epigraph, and Mansfield Park in its theatrics, as Briony prepares The Trials of Arabella for the stage. In the depiction of Briony herself—"she kept a diary locked by a clasp and a notebook written in a code of her own invention"—we see many heroines of girls' fiction from Enid Blyton novels to Harriet the Spy. In the solid, prosperous (but modern, and hence fake) Tallis house, set in its parkland, and in the gathering of guests in that house, we find echoes of the interwar house-party genre (Evelyn Waugh, say, or Anthony Powell; or that masterpiece of cinema, Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game). Then, too, there are the characters' names: Leon, Briony, and Cecilia are overdone enough; but what of the Quincey cousins, Lola, Jackson, and Pierrot? We are characters, these names announce. And this is a story.
Paradoxically, it is apparently this very acknowledgment, this frank playfulness, that liberates McEwan to follow his characters more honestly than ever before, with less bending to the demands of narrative satisfaction. Gone are the grotesqueries of Leonard and Maria's dismembering Otto in The Innocent, the sexual menace of the mythical Nazi hounds in Black Dogs, the histrionic kidnapping and gunplay of Enduring Love. There are memorable descriptions of hideous events in the second and third sections of Atonement, but they are depictions of the surreality of war. These sections are not stylishly impressive or slick in the way of the book's first 150 pages; nor are their comedies as evident. They lead us not into the psyches of the unhinged but into the psyches of ordinary people in an unhinged time. Seeing as they see, thinking as they think, we draw something new, smaller and quieter, from McEwan's gifts. Robbie, while retreating across France, reflects, "No one would ever know what it was like to be here. Without the details there could be no larger picture." And yet, thanks to McEwan, we are granted those details.
[Robbie] had been going for about ten minutes when he saw Mace's head on the grass by a pile of dirt. It was about twenty-five yards away, in the deep green shadow of a stand of poplars. He went towards it, even though he suspected that it would be better for his state of mind to walk on. He found Mace and Nettle shoulder-deep in a hole. They were in the final stages of digging a grave. Lying face-down beyond the pile of earth was a boy of fifteen or so. A crimson stain on the back of his white shirt spread from neck to waist.
We are given access, too, to the trials that Briony—a mere nursing probationer at St. Thomas's hospital—must bear. She is sent, for instance, to dress the face of a patient, Private Latimer.
[She] could see through his missing cheek to his upper and lower molars, and the tongue glistening, and hideously long. Further up, where she hardly dared look, were the exposed muscles around his eye socket. So intimate, and never intended to be seen.
There is nothing storylike about these visions, nothing tidy, no narrative advantage to their telling. Reading McEwan's work, we often find it impossible to slow down, so powerful is the pull of "What next?" In Atonement that pull lures us through the first section at breakneck speed, and reasserts its sway in the last. But in the second and third segments of the book a strange and fine thing happens: we are free to linger in the moment, to savor the exquisite, agonizing aptness of McEwan's images and the delicacy of his touch as he records, in fiction, the true horrors of war, and makes new the ordinary realizations those horrors force upon us—Robbie's longing for children, say, and Briony's recognition "that a person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn, not easily mended." We see at last that the beauty of the conjuring is indeed enough; and that its meaning—in all its ambiguities—lies before us.