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.