Birthday Review: Atonement, by Ian McEwan
a review by Rich Horton
Ian McEwan was born on 21 June 1948, so in honor of his 70th birthday, I am resurrecting this piece I wrote for my SFF.net newsgroup long ago, on his best-known novel.
Ian McEwan is one of the most highly-regarded novelists working today, and with damn good reason. I first encountered him, oddly enough, in the pages of Ted White's Fantastic, back in the mid-70s, with a story called "Solid Geometry". That was a very odd and quite excellent story, and McEwan's name stuck in my mind. So I later read his first story collection, First Love, Last Rites, very fine work. I kind of lost touch for a while, though I noticed that he was beginning to be widely praised. I did eventually read his creepy and scary first novel, The Cement Garden, about a nearly feral set of siblings living alone in a decaying neighborhood. That novel, along with the stories in First Love, Last Rites, and later works like The Child in Time (about the kidnapping of a three year old) gave him a reputation as sort of a contemporary psychological horror writer, a reputation which it seems to me slightly retarded his overall recognition. (That is to say, he was highly praised, but often with a sort of caveat, suggesting that he relied a lot on shock for his effects. Or so it seemed to me.) But eventually he seemed to have become established as a contender for "Best Contemporary British Writer". He's been nominated four times for the Booker (or Man Booker) Prize, and he won once for a very short novel, Amsterdam (possibly the slightest of his short listed novels). Atonement was short listed for the 2001 prize, but it lost to Peter Carey's The True History of the Kelly Gang.
Atonement is an outstanding novel. (Much better than Amsterdam, which is fine but as I said slight.) It is the story of one day in the life of 13 year old Briony Tallis, and the terrible crime she commits, and her eventual attempt at "atonement". Briony is an aspiring writer (and, we are aware from the start, she will eventually be a very highly regarded novelist), and she is planning to present a play for her beloved older brother Leon, visiting from London, on this day in 1935. The first half of the book presents the events of that day through the intertwined perceptions of several people: Briony; her older sister Cecilia, who has just finished at Cambridge; their charlady's son, Robbie, who has also finished at Cambridge and will be trying for medical school (sponsored by Mr. Tallis); and Briony's mother Emily Tallis, an invalid whose husband stays away and is clearly cheating on her. The other key characters are the Quinceys: 15 year old Lola and 9 year old twin boys Jackson and Pierrot, who have come to stay with the Tallises while their parents (Emily's sister and her husband) go through a divorce.
Briony recruits her cousins to act in her play but they seem ready to ruin it. Robbie and Cecilia, long friends from having grown up together, begin to discover a deeper attraction. The amiable Leon shows up with his crude and rich friend Paul Marshall. Dinner ends suddenly with the young boys running away, and a terrible event while searching for them is compounded by Briony's "crime", which I won't reveal but is truly wrenching, truly a "crime", but in a way understandable.
The novel then jumps forward 5 years to the beginning of the War, specifically the retreat from Dunkirk, and the effects of Briony's crime are revealed. Briony herself begins to try to atone ... Finally, in 1999 the aging Briony, a lionized novelist, reflects on her secrets, and on her final attempt at atonement.
It's really excellent stuff -- terribly wrenching, also sweetly moving, quite exciting. The view of the events at Dunkirk is a very effective. Briony, Robbie, and Cecilia are captured with exactness and honesty. The prose is very fine, very balanced and elegant. The real thing.
It has since, of course, been made into a very well-received movie, starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. I did like the film. I will note that a film based on his short novel On Chesil Beach (which I thought pretty good) is due this year.