Ian McEwan
Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2002. Pp. 372. $21.00

Reviewed by Nora Foster Stovel

British writer Ian McEwanauthor of such novels as The Cement Garden, The Comfort of Strangers, The Child in Time, The Innocent, Black Dogs, The Daydreamer, Enduring Love, and Amsterdam, winner of the 2000 Booker Prizehas written his masterpiece. Atonement richly deserves the many awards it has garneredPeople's Booker Prize, Commonwealth Writer's Prize, Whitbread Novel of the Year Award, W.H. Smith Literary Award, Globe and Mail Best Book of the Year Awardfor it is a great novel in the grand tradition.

McEwan debates fiction and fact in this historical panorama covering six decades of the twentieth century. Beginning in prewar Britain and concluding with the millennium, Atonement is a study of before and after, cause and effect, crime and punishment.

Postmodernist in the best sense, Atonement is structured in four interrelated sections. Part one, set in the Tallis country house in 1935, introduces the Tallis family and friends through the eyes of a budding writer. Briony Tallis, gifted with "a strange mind and a facility with words" (7), is also possessed of a "controlling demon" and "a passion for secrets" (5) that impels her to play God in her fictional creations.

The Tallis family is about to welcome visitors: adolescent Lola and the twins Jackson and Pierrot, "refugees from a bitter domestic civil war" (8), are about to arrive, along with Briony's beloved elder brother Leon, who is returning from Oxford. In his honor, Briony pens a play, The Trials of Arabella, casting her cousins in the roles of Arabella, the wicked foreign count with whom she is infatuated, and an impoverished doctor who saves Arabella from cholera in a seaside town and who turns out to be a prince in disguise: "the play told a tale of the heart whose message, conveyed in a rhyming prologue, was that love which did not build a foundation on good sense was doomed" (3): "This is the tale of spontaneous Arabella / Who ran off with an extrinsic fellow" (16). Rehearsals with the nine-year-old twins lead Briony to discover "the chasm that lay between an idea and its execution" (17).

Briony witnesses her elder sister, Cecilia, just down from Girton College, Cambridge, with prospective medical student Robbie Turnerson of the Tallis charlady and protégé of Jack Talliswho has won a first in English literature under the supervision of Dr. Leavis. Cecilia is filling a priceless family heirlooma Meissen porcelain vase painted by Hroldt for King August in 1726at a fountain composed of four dolphins supporting a shell on which a Triton squats. The couple split the vase apart between them, and Cecilia disrobes before submerging herself in the fountain to retrieve the fragments.

This moment is described with impressionistic impact on the sensitive psyche of Briony in a Woolfian study of "subject and object and the nature of reality" (Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse [Toronto: Oxford UP, 1992] 33). Witnessing this scene impels Briony to explore her selfhood and to speculate about that of others: "Was being Cecilia just as vivid an affair as being Briony?" (36). Cecilia, who used to waken Briony from nightmares, whispering, "Come back ... It's only a dream" (44), has become real.

Atonement is a bildungsroman that explores the psyche of a "young girl at the dawn of her selfhood" (312), an impressionable mind at the liminal stage of initiation into the adult world. One word drives her over the bridge from childhood innocence to adult passion.

Atonement is not only a bildungsroman; it is also a kunstlerroman. Years later, Briony writes a novella entitled Two Figures by a Fountain. The publisher's reader's critique is a priceless piece of metafiction: he admires her presentation of "the crystalline moment of perception," but desires "the underlying pull of simple narrative" (312). He suggests ploys: "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 accident? Might she innocently expose them somehow, to the young woman's parents, perhaps? ... Might the young couple come to use her as a messenger?" (313).

Atonement is a metafictional work in the best sense; a study of the mystery of creativity and the morality of literature, it plumbs the psyche of the artist. It poses the question, "how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?" (371). Creativity and morality are at war in this intriguing novel.

The word "atonement" suggests a crime, and a crime is committed against life and love. The repercussions, both personal and political, are felt throughout this historical panorama. The epigraph from Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey"My dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained"is accurate but misleading, for the public and private repercussions of this crime are far from comic.

Part two is set in France during the Second World War, as the fall of France leads to the evacuation of Dunkirk in June of 1940. Written from the point of view of Robbie Turner, accompanied by his Tom and Jerry colleagues, Corporals Nettle and Mace, the narrative chronicles the realities of war graphically. Sustained by Cecilia's words, "I'll wait for you. Come back" (261), Robbie travels the long and winding road to the Channel.

Part three returns to Briony's viewpoint. Punishing herself for her crime, she follows her sister Cecilia's example and enters nursing, instead of going up to Cambridge, as Cecilia had done previously. It is now 1940, and Briony is a novice nurse in a London hospital on the cusp between the evacuation of Dunkirk and the Blitz. Nursing a dying young Frenchman, who mistakes her for his lovea poignant parallel to Robbie's ordeal on the Continentshe tries to make restitution by rubbing her nose in brutal reality.

Part four takes a giant leap to the end of the century, as Briony's view of the preceding decades returns her to the Tallis house for the celebration of her seventy-seventh birthday. In her honor, her family stage her juvenile melodrama The Trials of Arabella. The play is the same, but everything else has changed. Those changes are at the heart of the narrative. "For that fortuitous girl the sweet day dawned / To wed her gorgeous prince. But be warned, / Because Arabella almost learned too late, / That before we love, we must cogitate!" (36768).

Atonement is a beautifully written novel of nostalgia, like Elizabeth Bowen at her best. Panoramic in its historical sweep, symphonic in its structure, metafictional in its narration, McEwan's novel is a compelling and gratifying read. "Here's the beginning of love at the end of our travail. / So farewell, kind friends, as into the sunset we sail" (368).