Who of us are so perfect that we’ve never wished we could go back and do something differently? Or simply not do it at all? Atonement, published in 2001 and filmed six years later, is generally believed to be one of Ian McEwan’s best novels. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and made TIME magazine’s list of the 100 greatest English-language novels since 1923. It resonates, I think, because the author touches that part of us where we are the most frail, the most human – in many ways, the most corrupt. “All of us,” McEwan has said, “have done something we regret. How we manage to remove that from our conscience, or whether that’s even possible, interested me.”
The story begins in the summer of 1935 at the country estate of an upper-class English family. Thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis, the budding novelist of the family, is awaiting the arrival of her cousins, Lola and the twins. She’s written a play, The Trials of Arabella, and plans to rehearse it with her cousins and put it on for the family. She, of course, will play Arabella, but when it comes to reading the play with her cousins, it somehow gets away from her. Lola assumes the leading role, and Briony is reduced to the lesser role of director.
Gazing out at the garden fountain, feeling disappointed and disgruntled, she witnesses a moment of sexual tension between her older sister, Cecelia, and Robbie Turner, their housekeeper’s son. Robbie has grown up with the Tallis children – Cecelia, Briony, and Leon, their older brother – and has been treated like one of the family. Taking the incident out of context, Briony mistakenly believes her sister has been insulted, even assaulted. This leads her to assume the role, in her mind, of her sister’s champion. And this, in turn, is the catalyst for the misdeed that will change the course of events for her sister and Robbie, and will haunt her for the rest of her life.
The moment in the garden is transformative not only for Briony, but also for Robbie. It forces him to admit to himself that he’s passionately in love with Cecelia. Back in his room, getting changed for dinner, he decides to write her a letter, apologizing for the incident by the fountain. He writes several drafts, eventually settling on one that is short, friendly, and casual. In a last minute humourous impulse, he adds a kind of postscript containing a vulgar sexual reference, then sets the letter aside and writes another, leaving out the offensive wording. Heading into the house for dinner that night, he hands Briony the envelope and asks her to deliver it to Cecelia. Immediately after giving it to her, he realizes he’s given her the wrong letter, the one he wrote as a joke. The one containing the word “cunt”.
Cecelia reads the letter, which has been opened; she knows that Robbie loves her and knows that Briony has read it. Robbie follows her into the library, attempts to apologize, and they end up making love. Briony enters the library and again misinterprets the situation: she thinks she’s been witness to an assault. The terrible things he said in the letter, which she only vaguely understands, together with what she thinks she has seen, confirm her belief that Robbie is, in the words of her cousin, “a maniac”.
During dinner, which is attended by Briony’s older brother and his friend, Paul Marshall, the twins go missing, and the family institutes a search for them in the surrounding woods. Briony, searching alone in the darkness, discovers her cousin Lola being raped by a man whose face she cannot see. When questioned by the police, she tells them it was Robbie she saw. Lola, for her part, claims not to have seen her attacker, and is unable – or unwilling – to identify him. The reader has good reason to believe the assailant is Leon’s friend, Paul, but that isn’t confirmed until much later. Robbie is arrested, despite the protests of his mother and Cecelia, and eventually sent to prison for a crime we know he didn’t commit, on the word of a thirteen-year-old girl who wants to be a hero.
After several years in prison, Robbie is released to join the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) fighting in France. Before he leaves, he meets up with Cecelia, who has become a nurse and has cut off all contact with her family, especially Briony. They share a kiss and she tells him she’ll wait for him – as she’s been doing all these years. The war goes badly, and the Allied troops are in retreat. Robbie, who’s been wounded, marches towards the sea at Dunkirk, sustained by the memory of that brief meeting and the promise of a safe haven if he can only reach England. The wound in his abdomen festers, causing him to become increasingly delirious and confused. He finally collapses on the beach at Dunkirk and falls asleep, waiting for the evacuation to begin.
In the meantime, Briony, now seventeen, is filled with remorse for her part in what happened four years ago. She has given up her place at Cambridge and is training to be a nurse, like Cecelia. She’s still writing, although maturity and experience have given her a new, modern sensibility: “The age of clear answers was over. So was the age of characters and plots. . . It was thought, perceptions, sensations that interested her, the conscious mind as a river through time, and how to represent its onward roll, as well as all the tributaries that would swell it, and the obstacles that would divert it. . . She had read Virginia Woolf’s The Waves three times and thought that a great transformation was being worked in human nature itself, and that only fiction, a new kind of fiction, could capture the essence of the change”.
I first read Atonement 10 years ago; it’s haunted me ever since. McEwan has perfectly captured, I think, the insecurities and self-aggrandizing impulses common to adolescent girls. Briony is not an evil child, if such a thing exists, but her perspective, positioned as it is between childhood ignorance and increasing sexual awareness, leads her down a very dark path. I was thirteen once and I can relate. While I don’t think I would have put others in jeopardy to make myself seem important, I can’t say I wouldn’t have done so, given the opportunity.
As a work of metafiction – that is, one in which the text is self-consciously aware that it is fiction – Atonement is actually the book Briony is writing to atone for the past. Her dilemma is this: “How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.”
Art of any kind is always about the attempt. As Browning wrote, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?” Ian McEwan, an avowed atheist, would, I think, agree.