- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 31, 2002

By Ian McEwan
Doubleday, $26, 351 pages

The opening scene appears idyllic: an English country house set in acres of parkland, lawns and gardens on the hottest day of summer, 1935. Yet something is slightly askew; we are not revisiting Brideshead. Although the grounds are impressive, the Tallis family's house is irredeemably ugly: "barely forty years old, bright orange brick, squat, lead-paned baronial Gothic," with sham black-stained pine banisters and tasseled wall lights shaded by fake parchment. Father, busy with the ministry and his mistress, is never home and mother spends her time in bed with a migraine or creatively doing nothing.
In the nursery, 13-year-old Briony Tallis is directing her new play, "The Trials of Arabella," to celebrate the eagerly anticipated visit of her older brother. But the cast Briony's rambunctious cousins nine-year-old twin boys and their 15-year-old sister Lola, a manipulative minx down to the tips of her painted toenails, prove resistant to direction. (The three have been dumped on the Tallis household by their flighty mother, who has bolted to Paris with her lover.)
Hot and frustrated, Briony decides to write no more plays, but to stick to stories instead. "In a story you only had to wish, you only had to write it down and you could have the world," she muses. "In a play you had to make do with what was available: no horses, no village streets,no seaside."
She's hardly made this decision when an odd scene unfolds outside the nursery window. Briony sees her older sister Cecilia strip down to her underwear and jump into the large fountain, watched by their childhood friend Robbie Turner, son of the Tallis family's cleaning woman. Briony once had a crush on Robbie who, like Cecilia, has recently returned home from Cambridge University Jack Tallis, the girls' father, having paid his way.
Although there is an innocent explanation for Cecilia's plunge, Briony concludes that Robbie is threatening her sister and, budding novelist that she is, mentally files away this incident for future use. Shortly afterwards, Robbie asks Briony, to deliver a letter to Cecilia.
Unfortunately he sends the first draft, an affectionate but rather crude little missive (he's just read "Lady Chatterley's Lover"); the harmless note he meant to send still lies on his desk. A Freudian slip indeed. Nosy Briony opens and reads the letter, believing that her chosen profession gives her that privilege: "… it was right, it was essential, for her to know everything." Later, while the rest of the house party prepares for dinner, she discovers Robbie and Cecilia making love in the library.
So far "Atonement" doesn't sound much like Ian McEwan, whose earlier works are known for a certain creepiness ("The Cement Garden") and mordant wit (Booker Prize-winner "Amsterdam") rather than heavy breathing love scenes in upper-crust country houses. A host of literary references Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, L.P. Hartley, Henry James and others dilute the histrionics of the first half of the novel, yet there is no denying that key incidents are pure melodrama. But Mr. McEwan has a good deal more in mind than a literary bodice ripper.
The episode at the fountain and the scene in the library are succeeded by darker events. When that night flirtatious Lola is or perhaps isn't raped in the garden, Briony identifies Robbie as the culprit. The assembled grown-ups, with the exception of Cecilia, not only believe Briony, but make her the center of attention instead of smacking her and sending her off to bed. Robbie is taken away in handcuffs and serves three years in jail for his supposed crime, before being released to fight in World War II.
The second part of the novel moves from sun-drenched Surrey to war-ravaged northern France five years later, where Robbie is part of the British Expeditionary Force's retreat to Dunkirk. The style changes from slow-moving lyricism with several interlocking points of view to a highly charged account of the war seen through Robbie's eyes. Mr. McEwan describes a bloody shambles, where shell-shocked survivors try not to hear the screams of the wounded and dream of "sharing a little house somewhere, of an ordinary life, a family line, connection."
Robbie dreams of returning to Cecilia whose letters always end with the same refrain: "I'll wait for you. Come back." The minor characters are marvelously observed, notably Robbie's two companions in arms, by turns stoic and half-crazed, hanging on to humor in the face of unspeakable horrors.
Meanwhile, in wartime London Briony, now 18, is serving as a nurse and writing in her few spare moments. Among the dead and dying, consumed with guilt for her betrayal, she learns a simple truth: "that a person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn, not easily mended."
Mr. McEwan's purpose becomes clear: This book, his most ambitious, complex and moving work so far, is as much about the craft of writing as about love and war and betrayal. Briony becomes a successful author of fiction known for its amorality, and "Atonement," we learn, is a novel written and re-written over her lifetime as a literary reparation for her misdeeds.
Which raises some troubling questions concerning truth and morality: Is setting the record straight in a novel years after the event sufficient atonement for a devastating lie that wrecked lives and is otherwise never publicly recanted? Can writing as atonement for a crime take the place of action to undo the damage done by that crime? Does an author have a right to open other people's letters because it is "essential for her to know everything"? Can Robbie and Cecilia forgive Briony? Can she forgive herself? Mr. McEwan's epilogue, which takes place in 1999, when Briony is a celebrated woman of letters, answers some of these questions but is properly ambivalent about others.
"Atonement" is a tour de force in which brilliant writing, careful plotting and memorable characters bring to mind A.S. Byatt's "Possession," and John Fowles' "The French Lieutenant's Woman." Like Mr. Fowles, Mr. McEwan offers two endings: Briony's and the "real" one. Careful readers may foresee the "real" end. And, having got there, many will want to go right back to the beginning.

Lorna Williams is a Washington writer.

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