Can you re-read Atonement?

Happy summer, everyone! Inspired by the 20th anniversary of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, I decided to dabble in a little literary retro-criticism. The piece below originally appeared in The Sherbrooke Record, July 9, 2021. WARNING! NOTHING BUT SPOILERS AHEAD!


Before Ian McEwan published Atonement in 2001, he had already earned significant acclaim, including the 1998 Booker Prize for his previous novel Amsterdam. But it was Atonement that made McEwan a household name, due in large part to its ending, which included not one twist but two.

What becomes of a novel, though, after the surprise is revealed? On the twentieth anniversary of its publication, and with the cats well out of the bag, is Atonement worth re-reading?

The novel’s first section is set in England in 1935 at the pastoral home of the Tallis family. Thirteen-year-old Briony, who fancies herself a writer, witnesses a scene between her sister Cecilia and Robbie, the son of a servant. Through misinterpretation and malice, Briony ultimately accuses Robbie of raping her young cousin Lola.

Part 2 is presented from Robbie’s perspective. Having served his sentence, he is now a soldier in France, badly wounded and in retreat to Dunkirk, determined to return to Cecilia. The section ends with Robbie losing consciousness.

Part 3 is from the point of view of Briony, who is training as a nurse but still an aspiring writer. Wracked with guilt for the lie she told, she has written a novella based on the witnessed scene in Part 1. Over the course of this last section, we learn that Robbie has survived and has reunited with Cecilia, that Briony will recant her evidence and that she will rewrite her novella as a novel. Twist No. 1: the entirety of what the reader has just read has been that very novel.

But Twist No. 2 undermines this satisfying ending; in an epilogue set in present day and told in Briony’s first person, we learn that Robbie died in France and that Cecilia was killed in the Blitz. The “novel” ending, then, is another one of Briony’s lies.

The question then becomes, knowing this heartbreaking and possibly maddening ending, is re-reading Atonement bearable?

Most certainly, yes. It is much like watching a superhero origin story: there’s pleasure in seeing how we get to the destination and picking out clues en route.

Some of these breadcrumbs are sly winks, such as young Briony’s propensity for writing stories about “love, adversities overcome, a reunion and a wedding.” Or the way Briony repeatedly misperceives things, just as we the reader misperceive the nature of this novel (but not on second reading!).

Other clues are more meta-fictional. Briony is revealed as the “author,” but of course it’s really McEwan, exploring the nature of fiction and writing—the socially acceptable lie—that controls what the reader sees and does not see. “In a story,” Briony thinks, “you only had to wish, you only had to write it down and you could have the world.” Her wish ultimately becomes the novel she writes.

Sleuthing out clues is fine, but knowing ahead of time that Briony is the author of all this, the reader may bristle. How could Briony, for instance, know what conversations occurred between Robbie and Cecilia? Of course, she couldn’t. Here too she is lying to us.

But then we keep coming back to the fact: it’s not her, it’s all McEwan! He is the ultimate god of this world.

Nowhere does this meta-level twistiness get more delicious than when 18-year-old Briony receives a letter from editor Cyril Connolly, an actual historic figure. He writes about the girl described in Briony’s novella:

“If this girl has so fully misunderstood or been so wholly baffled by the strange little scene that has unfolded before her, how might it affect the lives of the two adults? Might she come between them in some disastrous fashion? Or bring them closer, either by design or by accident?”

A fictional letter by a real person giving notes on a novella based on a “real-life” incident that will become the novel that we have just read, written by the narrator, but all of it actually written by McEwan’s… That’s brilliant, head-spinning fun!

It doesn’t hurt that McEwan is a superb craftsman and storyteller. There also may be plot points forgotten since the original reading. After all, it’s been 20 years! I, for example, forgot about the missing twins, the letter given in error and an important reveal regarding the crime. (McEwan misdirects admirably in regards to this small but critical mystery; you don’t even realize it’s a mystery until the reveal—the reader jumps to conclusions, just like Briony!)

Memory is an appropriate point to end on, as this is at the heart of Atonement’s epilogue. Briony, now a celebrated author, is losing her memory. She will publish this novel only after her death, which is imminent, and after those who could be damaged by its revelations have died as well. Then, with no one to remember, the “truth” of the novel will stand. Briony’s atonement: she will provide the couple the happy ending she robbed them of.

The reader, on the other hand, is not given the same consideration. But while we don’t get a happy ending, McEwan atones himself by allowing the reader the satisfaction of pulling the entire business apart—especially upon second reading.

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Checking In

Image courtesy McSweeney’s:

How’s everyone’s spring going? Got that shot in the arm yet? Got two? Convaxulations! Me, I got the AstraZeneca and achieved full not-clotting status with only minimal worrying. Who knows what my second dose will be. I’m hoping it’ll be a combination of Pfizer and Marlboro cigarettes.

During my time away from my weekly column, I’ve been fitfully working on my novel manuscript. About a month ago it passed the 50,000-word mark, which I always like because then I can tell myself I just wrote The Great Gatsby. It’s at 76,000 now; if it were a human, it would be in its teenage years, all pimples, angst and lack of self-confidence.

I don’t so much have a writing routine as a writing stab-in-the-dark: when I’m not exhausted from work or the low-grade anxiety of life in 2021, I find a space, sometimes on the bed, stretch out with the laptop on my lap (one of those rare times when it really truly is a lap-top) and write until I lose feeling in my legs. Don’t kid yourself; I’m 55, so this is probably a thousand words, max.

Unlike my first novel, I’m not revising as I go, barely re-reading what I’m writing, in fact. This could be a terrible idea, we’ll see. I’m also allowing the characters more freedom to direct the plot rather than have an end point for them to get to. Again, this may not be a good idea. But the benefit of taking time between writing sessions is that these characters marinate in my head. By the time I get down to actual writing, I have an idea what they’re going to do. Sometimes, though, they surprise me. That’s fun. That’s magic!

Am I missing my weekly newspaper column and posts here on this blog? I can’t say I am, honestly, probably because the larger project has taken up most of the available creative air space. I’ve also had time to write some shorter pieces that have found publication elsewhere. In March, there was Christopher CrossFit FAQs at McSweeney’s. I got to riff on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in April (AITA For Not Wanting to Be Seen with My Donkey-Headed Boyfriend?), and this week I’m there again to celebrate Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday and also to benefit from my lifelong misconception that Blood on the Tracks referred to literal blood on train tracks. The result is Bob Dylan’s Zombie Blood on the Tracks.

Finally, I had my first appearance at HAD, which is a very cool and weird journal of creative writing, mostly short. They accept submissions only during brief windows announced on Twitter, so you creative writer types should follow them as well. My piece is entitled Simple Mnemonic for Remembering Pi to the 30th Decimal.

My three-month hiatus from my newspaper column is supposed to end next week. Will it? I have to decide.

Other than that, got out camping, readied my garden and did not replace my toilet. I’m living my best life. You?

Posted in Reading? Ugh! | 23 Comments

Dear John (and Margaret and Doreen and Larry and Alphonse and…)

It’s not you, it’s me.

Shush, shush. No, don’t speak…

It was 17 years ago on this very day that we first ran across each other.* Do you remember? You were a longstanding, traditional newspaper readership and I was a fresh-faced columnist with a particularly bad head shot. Remember how suspicious you were of me at first? “Is this guy kidding?” you asked. Yes. Yes, most of the time I was.

Soon we came around to appreciating each other—me grateful to you for taking the time to read me every Thursday, you tolerating the occasional fart joke.

We had some laughs, didn’t we? That time in May 2006. A light chuckle on August 18, 2009. And who can forget the run of titters between February and April 2011?

Also: “titters.” Continue reading

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Christopher CrossFit FAQs

What is Christopher CrossFit?

Christopher CrossFit is an adult-oriented fitness program for men, women, and bodacious cowboys that focuses on strength, conditioning, endurance, and sailing. The program is specifically designed for people in the night whose bodies are weak and those on the run with no time to sleep. They’ve got to ride — ride like the wind — to be free again. Christopher CrossFit is a Toto workout that guarantees rock-hard abs and buns of Steely Dan. Christopher CrossFit: Never Be the Same.

Read more of my latest at:

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Border Story Story

Library. Border. Pots.

DERBY LINE, Vt. — For generations, the sleepy towns of Stanstead, Quebec, and Derby Line, Vermont, have slumbered together in the proverbial twin beds of neighboring border communities. Most of the time, the two towns have dreamed their separate dreams and not worried about hogging the political covers or drooling on each other’s soci-economic pillow. On special occasions, such as anniversaries or after a couple of drinks, those beds have been pushed together and the relationship, like this metaphor, has become more intimate.

But in recent months, a presence has disrupted these napping neighbors like a cat slurping lustily at its loins at 2:00 a.m. Life in Stanstead and Derby Line has become a nightmare. A Nightmare on Canusa Street, for this border community has become overrun by a pernicious yet mostly polite presence: journalists.

Journalists have descended on this border community—once drowsy, now sullen at the breakfast table—to write stories about the border. And increasingly, there are reporters writing stories about reporters writing stories about the border. This is one of those stories. Continue reading

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