By J. Stefan-Cole
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
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 parallel...like 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
(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