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.