Ruin and redemption: Ian McEwan's 'Atonement' traces a young girl's false accusation, its aftermath and her ultimate transformation

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Britain's Ian McEwan has been called a maestro of suspense. In a distinguished body of work — eight novels, two screenplays, several collections of short stories — he has explored how the perverse brushes up against the mundane. Winner of the 1998 Booker prize for his novel "Amsterdam," McEwan delivers a devastating one-two punch — he writes as scary as Stephen King and thinks like Conrad.

Perhaps his seemingly effortless control has made him think twice about the limitations and deceptions of fiction. In "Atonement," his latest work, McEwan pushes against his own dark brilliance and makes good on his stated desire to "make history one of the moving elements in a novel."

"Atonement" begins in the summer of 1935 at the country home of the Tallis family.

Youngest daughter, 13-year-old precocious Briony, has written a romantic play, "The Trials of Arabella," to celebrate her older brother Leon's homecoming. Briony has roped her three visiting cousins into her production but rehearsals are floundering.

Meanwhile, Cecilia, her older sister, is experiencing emotional disruptions of her own. Recently graduated from Cambridge, Cecilia has returned to the bosom of her family, but no one seems particularly interested. Bored and increasingly restless, Cecilia is realizing her visit is a kind of comfortable stalling tactic. She is not quite ready to enter the future, and she feels awkward with her past, namely her relationship with Robbie Turner, her longtime childhood friend, who through the financial largess of her father has also taken a Cambridge degree, his with honors.

As the day unwinds, Robbie and Cecilia will meet several times and do reckless and surprising things, and Briony will mistake their awakenings of sexual desire for something more sinister.

Later that evening, her false accusations against Robbie will tear two lives apart.

McEwan builds this part of his story slowly. The quick compact sentences he employed so well in "Enduring Love" have now lengthened into long fluid paragraphs of subtle psychological description. He is especially fine depicting how children think:

"It is hard to slash at nettles for long without a story imposing itself, and Briony was soon absorbed and grimly content, even though she appeared to the world like a girl in the grip of a terrible mood. She had found a slender hazel branch and stripped it clean. There was work to do, and she set about it. A tall nettle with a preening look, its head coyly drooping and its middle leaves turned outward like hands protesting innocence — this was Lola, and though she whimpered for mercy, the singing arc of a three-foot switch cut her down at the knees and sent her worthless torso flying."

This first section of "Atonement" is a horror story about coming of age — two naïve people discover themselves, cross class boundaries and pay the price of a child's fevered fantasies. It is also about how children view the confusing world of adults and by extension — because Briony is a born writer — how artists invent a reality to fit their needs.

Briony makes assumptions based on her desire to interpret adult behavior. Then, she is unwavering in defense of her fiction. And her upper-class family rallies around her.

As the novel shifts, McEwan takes this personal calamity and expands it into a national one — the ragged retreat of the British from Dunkirk during World War II — as seen through Robbie's eyes. Here, spiritual and physical chaos are one and the same, the German warplanes rule the sky, and civilization is reduced to random acts of barbarity and sporadic kindness.

McEwan's depiction of Robbie's long march to the sea deepens the story, moving it beyond a highly literate psychological drama into an examination of human vulnerability:

"The hole was a perfectly symmetrical inverted cone whose sides were smooth, as though finely sieved and raked. There were no human signs, not a shred of clothing or shoe leather. Mother and child had been vaporized."

In the novel's third section, McEwan shifts again, to a London hospital, bringing Briony, now a nurse's aide in training, back into the narrative. This rather monstrous child will now undergo a transformation of spirit. How McEwan pulls this off is a marvel of plotting. To spoil it here would be a literary sin.

Can certain actions be redeemed? McEwan says yes and no, and this equivocal answer has extended McEwan's range and power. It is as if an artist as smoothly precise as Alfred Hitchcock began to see with the vision of a Jean Renoir. "Atonement" is an amazing accomplishment.

Richard Wallace reviews fiction and theater for The Seattle Times. He lives in Seattle.


by Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, $26