Atonement is a spectacular book, but for all its brilliance, the denouement is still deeply puzzling. In Part one, which is a gorgeous bit of masterwork, McEwan creates a wonderful, dream-like atmosphere that allows the conflict of the story to slowly emerge as if from a bewitching fog a terrible lie is perpetrated and two wars ensue: Robbie’s participation in World War II (Part two) and Briony’s inner psychological war (Part three). Although Briony is a penitent probationer in hospital hallways, no real meaningful atonement is ever achieved because Cecilia and Robbie can’t forgive her. They’re dead. And if as the editor observes in Briony’s rejection slip, “War is the enemy of artistic creation,” then how comes it that Briony’s novel ever ripens into fruit? How does she become a great literary artist? That’s the first problem. Further, we learn in the postscript that Briony thinks her greatest act of contrition is the god-like act of granting eternal life to Cecilia and Robbie. But if that’s the case, why tell us they died? Why tell us they never consummated their love? Why steal with the left hand of truth what the right hand of contrition has just lovingly given? That’s the second problem. There’s a structural flaw in McEwan’s narrative, a tension he cannot resolve, because there are two competing storylines, each with very different intentions. One features incipient love whacked at the knees by a lie; the other, a portrait of the artist as a young (and old) woman, and McEwan favors the latter storyline at precisely the moment when Briony’s motivation ought to make McEwan spurn it.


21 Responses to Atonement

  1. Skip says:

    I think the trouble is how to read frame stories. Briony’s own story is set in the fictional world, where our realization of her alternate-reality is one-step removed (in McEwan’s fictional world). So I think there is quite a bit of narrative vertigo here, in which we are asked to exist in multiple story worlds simultaneously. I find it more interesting than enjoyable, if that makes any sense.

    • Kevin Neilson says:

      Narrative vertigo, indeed. Over Truman Burbanksian vortices we hover! Vertigo is unavoidable when the framing device is revealed at the end of the story. No vertigo in Canterbury Tales, for instance, where Chaucer doesn’t stack the deck in favor of a neat meta-fictional trick. By the by, do you prefer Skip or Ape? In either case, welcome — delighted to have you here.

  2. Trevor says:

    When I first read Atonement I was blown away. I loved it. As the years have past, though, that flaw you mention above (and thank you for articulating it because I never could quite grasp my gripe) bothered me. I started to feel that McEwan went with showiness and cleverness, throwing one too many tricks out there, rather than allow the integrity of the novel to stand on its own. That’s been my feeling for the past three years. And then, last year, I read So Long, See You Tomorrow and felt even more strongly that McEwan failed to create a novel that held together. Alas, I’m still struggling to decide if I like the book anyway.

    • Kevin Neilson says:

      Hi Trevor, I’ve nursed a grievance against the ending of Atonement now for a while, and this is as close as I’ve come to putting my finger on it, I think. He doubles Briony as a narrator of what she calls a “forensic memoir,” on the one hand, and then a narrator of a confession which she pens in her journal, on the other. This doubleness allows McEwan to demonstrate not Briony’s skills as a narrator but McEwan’s David Blainesque skills as an author. Intrusion. I cry foul.

  3. Colleen says:

    GREAT review, especially this: “Why tell us they never consummated their love? Why steal with the left hand of truth what the right hand of contrition has just lovingly given?” You’ve almost made me want to read this.

    • Kevin Neilson says:

      Almost?! I see I have a long way to go before I’m your California muse. P.S. I don’t want McCarthy’s baby. Mitchell’s maybe, not McCarthy’s. Cheers.

      • Colleen says:

        You are my California muse – you got me to read Coetzee again! But in the case of McEwan, you’re battling against the fact that I think Amsterdam is one of the worst books I’ve ever read.

  4. Interesting response Kevin. I must say that I didn’t really have a problem with the resolution. In fact, I chuckled at the end with the way he had juggled the two stories (and I thought the film managed this aspect wonderfully via the soundtrack). To attempt to answer your question, perhaps the “stealing with the left hand of truth” tells us that her attempt at atonement through art in fact does not succeed, is no substitute for a real life? As to how Briony became a great artist, it’s a while since I read the book but isn’t this war story she’s telling late novel – her career has already been established? Perhaps the fact that she continues with this story despite the admonition provides further support that ultimately this method of atonement is shallow – that art goes only so far?

    • Kevin Neilson says:

      Her confession just doens’t make sense, especially if we take her at her word, that she wants Cecilia and Robbie to enjoy to eternal life, eternal love. Here’s the kicker: Briony acknowledges that Ceclia and Robbie’s love letters, right, fictionally real love letters, are preserved at the War Museum. Preserved, forever — and they’re not hot shot authors, like Briony is. Yet Briony carefully writes a confession that she committed a moral crime as a little girl, as well as a narrative sleight of hand as an author by telling a story about two lovers who never loved one another. But why? She has no motive to do so. None. But McEwan does. By moving her hand in this fashion, although it contradicts her motivation, he can have the cake of forensic memoir and eat his meta-fiction, too. Anyhow, I’m not entirely satisfied w/ this response and will continue thinking about it. Best.

      • Thanks Kevin, but I have to say that I still don’t quite get all your points. I’m not sure what their letters being at the War Museum has to do with it? And, why do you say she has no motive? Surely her motive is her ongoing guilt about the impact of her actions on her sister and boyfriend? It all made perfect sense to me. As I recollect, I thought the plotting was a little tricky at times, but in the end it made sense to me on a few levels.

      • Kevin Neilson says:

        Sorry, I could have been clearer. Cecilia and Robbie’s letters were preserved, and they were nobodies. Briony is somebody, a famous novelist, everything she writes will be preserved, if not by her, then by others. So Briony knows that a written confession of sorts can become a historical document with the power to destroy the ruse eternal life, eternal love. You know, Atonement is a fascinating book, because it generates such different reactions. There are lots of good readers I respect who think the book coheres, and just as many who don’t, it seems.

  5. Tony says:

    While the editor in the book may claim that war kills creativity, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true; a bit of conflict, internal or external, can always get the creative juices flowing. I would argue that it is this event in her life that powers her later career: unable to live at peace with herself in the ‘real world’, she seeks refuge in her fantasies, unwilling to face up to her behaviour until her life is almost over.

    In a way, the book is all about Briony, the other characters being merely puppets. In fact, seeing how she manipulated the story, how can we be sure that the rest, if any, of the tale is true?

  6. Kevin Neilson says:

    Hi Tony, yep, I see your point about conflict and creativity. As for your last point, would that it were all about Briony. I fear, however, that in the closing scenes it becomes all about McEwan. He creates a wonderful fictional world and then intrudes in it, not as a narrator but as an author who manipulates a narrator to achieve a cheap meta-fictional effect, in my opinion. Still, I loved the book, especially the first part, a great deal.

  7. nicole says:

    It’s been a long time since I’ve read Atonement, but I definitely remember this tension you describe. I do think I interpreted it like whisperinggums, though: that Briony’s atonement is shallow and meaningless, and further, that it’s even a bit vain.

  8. You are right Tony – this book is one of my most memorable online book discussions because there was such a variety of opinions.

    However, I can’t resist responding to your clarification! I don’t see it as odd that Cecilia and Robbie’s letters were preserved in a War Museum. My experience of war museums is that they are interested in the subject matter and so will more often accept letters, photos etc by unknown people if they add to their coverage of war. As for, the fact that that notion of “eternal love” may be destroyed sometime in the future, I think Briony is very aware that her solution is an imperfect one and that fiction really can’t function as atonement much as she’d like to. (But I”m too lazy to go fish out my book to back this up … we can just agree to stay in our respective corners, LOL)

  9. Kevin Neilson says:

    Hi Nicole, welcome. I enjoyed your posts on Brothers Karamazov, by the way, so much so that I hope to re-read it again, soon. This weekend, I’ll crack open the last 20 pages of Atonement and read it w/ a different set of eyes. Perhaps I’ll see what you and Whisper saw. Cheers.

  10. Colleen – I certainly agree with you re Amsterdam, but I felt recently that I should give it another try. Why DID it win the Booker?

  11. Mrs.B. says:

    Interesting post. I loved the book and the ending. Briony’s fictional story was a way for her to ‘atone’ for her sins. I think the book shows the power of a writer to manipulate a story anyway they want, the power of a narrator as we wonder if they’re unreliable or not. I think it’s a very original, excellent piece of work and I don’t like every McEwan book.

    • Kevin Neilson says:

      Hi Mrs. B. I think it’s a fine book, too. Superior to anything else McEwan has written — and that by a long shot. You, Whisper, and Nicole have prompted me to re-examine my view. I was going to share additional ideas here, but it proved too long. So. I might make another post of it. Cheers.

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