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Other Book Reviews:

- Jonathon Dee

The White
- Deborah Larsen
Into the Buzzsaw
- Kristina Borjesson

- Ian McEwan

The Black Veil
- Rick Moody

Tempting Faith DiNapoli
- Lisa Gabriele

- Lynn Breedlove

Africa Speaks
- Mark Goldblatt

The Shape of a Pocket
- John Berger

Media Unlimited
- Todd Gitlin

Carter Beats the Devil
- Glen David Gold

Somebody's Gotta Tell It!
Jack Newfield
Violence, Nudity, Adult Content
- Vince Passaro

Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace
- Gore Vidal
The War Against Cliche
- Martin Amis
Look at Me
- Jennifer Egan

Them: Adventures With Extremists
- Jon Ronson

Tishomingo Blues
- Elmore Leonard

Letters to a Young Contrarian - Christopher Hitchens
With Love and Squalor -
Kip Kotzen and Thomas Beller
Shanghai Baby -
Wei Hui
Shop Talk -
Philip Roth

Halls of Fame -
John D'Agata
This is Not a Novel -
David Markson
My Name is Red -
Orhan Pamuk
The Corrections -
Jonathan Franzen
Nickel and Dimed On (Not) Getting By in America -
Barbara Ehrenreich
Spreading Misandry
P. Nathanson and K. Young

A Non-Review
By J. Stefan-Cole

The opening of Ian McEwan's, ATONEMENT; Doubleday, 2002, feels like a 19th century English parlor novel. We are with the Tallis family, lounging on the Chesterfield of a sultry summer day somewhere beyond London. Thirteen year old Briony has written a play to welcome her brother, Leon, home. Her preferred genre is the short story, penned in long hand and passed out to family members to read as their little darling looks on. But her cousins are coming and she has decided on a theater piece with them performing. The cousins' parents have split--a scandal in England of 1935--and they have been shipped to Aunt Emily's until the dust settles. Briony will direct and star in, "The Trials of Arabella".

She is an annoying girl except when McEwan uses her to explore the germ of a writer's sensibility, the quirks that will one day make Briony a full-fledged novelist. So, the cousins arrive, nine year old twins, Pierrot and Jackson, and their precocious fifteen year old sister, Lola, who steams right off a Balthus canvas. Rehearsals start in the Tallis nursery, but soon prove discouraging. The boys are restless, they want to go swimming, they read their lines like "a roll call". While Lola, languidly, sneakily, takes over the lead and just about everything else to ruin, Briony suspects, the entire project until Briony is left alone to consider the possibility of failure. Eventually, she calls it quits, storming off to her room to cry.

Before that, though, she witnesses an odd occurrence outside the nursery window. She sees Cecilia, her much older sister, undressing to her panties and bra in front of Robbie Turner. Robbie is the son of the Tallis's charlady. Briony's dad has been sponsoring him since he won a scholarship to the same upper crust school the Tallis children attended. Robbie has excelled all the way to a "first" from Cambridge, the same year Cecilia has graduated with a third. We never meet Mr. Tallis, distant and preoccupied man. He's an official in the Home Office, where Hitler's saber rattling can no longer be ignored and the government has begun to quietly prepare for war--a fact that slips its way into the comfortable Tallis house.

Briony can't hear her sister and Robbie from her window perch, but the pantomime shocks her. Suddenly her half naked sister jumps into the Triton fountain (an eccentric fixture on the sprawling estate) and comes back up with an object that Briony can't see. Cecilia then storms off (there is a good deal of storming off in the book), leaving Robbie and an evaporating puddle behind. It is the puddle that captures Briony, for after Robbie has left it is all that remains of the scene she has witnessed, until it too disappears. What has happened? What were the three characters in this drama doing? Cecilia in her underwear, Robbie looking on and Briony spying on both. It is an epiphany for Briony who suddenly sees her past efforts as child's play: her silly morality tales, her little play. She senses something new, a psychological world opening, and, more, the development of real characters. It is a turning point: "Briony had her first, weak intimation that for her now it could no longer be fairy-tale castles and princesses, but the strangeness of the here and now, of what passed between people, the ordinary people that she knew, and what power one could have over the other, and how easy it was to get everything wrong, completely wrong."

Ian McEwan's books are savvy, intriguing and deeply creepy. Not quite in the way Patricia Highsmith's books are creepy. With McEwan, things are perfectly normal all around an event that seeps into perversion or killing or a twist that somehow does not quite cease to be ordinary. There is no Mr. Ripley in McEwan's stories. His is more of a William Trevor climate, damning details and a life or two suddenly choked by them. In Amsterdam, a third rate composer seeks the quiet of the Lake District to finish a score, and does not allow himself to be distracted by the fact that he is very likely witnessing a rape. In Black Dog, a French Village carries on normally all the while knowing of the secret rapes committed by Nazi's using dogs, dogs whose descendants still ominously roam the countryside. The creepiness comes on slowly, like going around all day only to discover you've got your cloths on inside out, or have forgotten your underpants. McEwan's books flip the normal inside out. Or as he says of Briony's eventual novels, "Her fiction was known for its amorality."

Briony decides the scene she has witnessed is sinister, that Robbie has somehow forced her sister to undress. She also determines to toss off the pinafores of childhood. She will be more adult, like that pouting tease Lola, but she will be so as a writer. Her child's romantic imagination, however, has not caught up to her new insight, and she is sexually clueless. This proves to be a dangerous combination. Big brother Leon finally arrives with a friend, Paul Marshall--an assuming man who will one day make millions selling his new, "Amo," candy bars to soldiers in the war he is banking on. Leon is ineffectual, his friend a bore who casts a hungry eye on Lola. Father Tallis won't make it down from London, but no matter; the table is set, the cocktails consumed, dinner begins, and then it all goes badly off on a hot summer night.

I had to put the book down. It was a tour de force when out of left field I found myself gut deep in oh, no territory. Didn't see that I was about to be thrown out of the Tallis parlor into a bad feeling. I hadn't yet realized I cared for a character who was brutally wronged. Well, the nicely handled sex scene between Cecilia and Robbie just before the oh, no helped. In a nutshell: there is a rape and Briony fingers the wrong man. Otherwise, everything carries on. Then the country is at war.

It has become 1939, the Dutch and French have fallen, and Belgium is about to. We follow Robbie and the retreating British force as they try to make Dunkirk under near constant air attack by German Stukas. This is a richly written book, and nowhere more so than in the nightmarish retreat. Once again, it is the ordinariness surrounding the hell. Robbie is now an infantry private. While fleeing on a country road he sees a child's leg hanging in a tree, and the detail of a bit of striped pajama pant still clinging to it. Later, after yet another strafe attack, "...he saw a man and his collie dog walking behind a horse-drawn plow. Like the ladies in the shoe shop, the farmer did not seem aware of the convoy. These lives were lived in the deadly pursuit of a hunt to hounds, while over the next hedge a woman in the back seat of a passing motorcar was absorbed in her knitting, and in the bare garden of a new house a man was teaching his son to kick a ball. Yes, the plowing would still go on and there'd be a crop, and someone to reap it and mill it, others to eat it, and not everyone would be dead..."

It is not easy to write convincingly about war. There is a bit of overlap here with the opening of Rene Clement's film, Forbidden Games, where masses of citizens try to flee Paris under bomb and strafe attack. Here too are farmers in their fields and we follow the horror through the fate of a little girl suddenly orphaned on the road, wandering to the farm clutching her dead dog, and we never again see another bullet. If you tap for a moment into the first fifteen minutes of Stephen Spielberg's, Saving Private Ryan, the war comes across with unnerving clarity, but the remainder of the movie trots out the usual Hollywood heroics. Entertaining, but beside the point. Clement's film and McEwan's Dunkirk retreat bring war into blunt focus through the ordinary. With ATONEMENT, life carries on and the reader is never far from Cecilia and Briony and the crime of false witness back in the not so jolly old England.

A twist comes at the last moment. We are left with Briony the novelist, "I know there's always a certain kind of reader who will be compelled to ask, But what really happened?...The problem...has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?" What really happened, indeed. McEwan leaves us wondering about more than just Briony's authorial voice. This potent tale ends with a typically McEwan uneasiness.
(Of note: The summer issue (#162) of The Paris Review, Adam Begley--books editor of The New York Observer--interviews Ian McEwan, "The Writing Life".)

©September 2002 J. Stefan-Cole

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