Literary reviews as a rule do not behoove the person to know anything about the work he is reviewing. He may revel in some of the trendier devices and philosophy, but in time first-rate novels end up branded with the same nonsense that tattoos the maudlin vulgarities of bestseller kiosks. Why is this? Perhaps because there is only so much we can say without context; perhaps because publishers are wise enough to know what type of citation makes a reader feel good about himself (there is no small psychology in such measures); perhaps because, for all our differences, each one of us desires a basket of similar goods – peace, prosperity, love, remembrance, fidelity, hope, and redemption. The commonality of our themes bespeaks an undercurrent of basic human values all too often downplayed by those who like relativism, which eschews societal responsibilities for a desert bungalow where anything can and will happen (you may have heard such drivel before). So when we read the decorous praise embedded in the usual display of the reviewer's past readings we discover nothing about its mechanisms. A literary review has its destination, that of literary context, broadly bent across its brow and nothing more. The careful reader knows better than to wallow in bibliographies, however luminous they may seem, as in this famous novel.
The structure of Atonement derives its power from its immediate surroundings. An interbellum British country home; the attendant snobbery and trivial worries; a looming war with a surging and malignant juggernaut – all these are simple tools of fiction from the autoclave of longtime practitioners. What makes them lovely is the patience with which they are rendered familiar. Our family are the Tallises, father Jack (conspicuously absent), mother Emily (conspicuously valetudinarian), son Leon (conspicuously unambitious), and, the real stars of the show, two sisters a full decade apart, Cecilia and Briony. The summer is 1935, a whole generation after Europe was massacred yet sufficiently ahead of fascist hellfire to have us believe that happiness is not only possible, it is also enduring. For a short visit anyway, the Tallises have been beset by Emily's niece Lola and twin nephews Jackson and Pierrot, names so hideously cacophonous as to shed great doubt on their mother's concern for the well-being of their owners. Briony's best method for coping with these interlopers is to focus on the visit of the very un-prodigal son, Leon. In his honor she, an intellectually precocious thirteen, writes a play that she intends to have her cousins act out (the plan ends in non-performance and humiliation). The other distraction is the tall, handsome, and intelligent creation called Robbie Turner. A Cambridge graduate just like Cecilia, whom he has known all his life, yet least of all when they attended the same university, Robbie plays an unlikely role in the Tallises' existence in that he is the sole offspring of their beloved charwoman Grace. The two have heard nothing of his father for seventeen years now, so it has been the self-imposed task of Jack Tallis to see to Robbie's education. He smartly studied literature at Cambridge; he then also smartly determined that he had little literary talent and has now become greatly interested in a medical degree, again to be subsidized by Jack. But the figure of particular interest is a coeval of Leon's, another tall man by the name of Paul Marshall.
Marshall smells war – the rotting flesh, the smoke, the taste of dirt in every orifice – but he also smells the spoils. He knows what will happen because it has already happened (one of the advantages of writing about the past), yet at the same time senses that what his father's generation suffered was not conclusive. With the confidence of someone who knows that he has enough money never to appear boring, he speaks at length of his wartime plans to fabricate fake chocolate energy bars for every British soldier. That this foodstuff bears the name "Amo bar" might recall what is stroked into each rifle and machine gun, as well as a certain Latin conjugation (Lola suggests the latter). Yet for all his millions and "cruel good looks," Paul is ultimately a typical part of Leon's world:
In Leon's life, or rather, in his account of his life, no one was mean-spirited, no one schemed or lied or betrayed. Everyone was celebrated at least in some degree, as though it was a cause for wonder that anyone existed at all. He remembered all his friends' best lines. The effect of one of Leon's anecdotes was to make his listener warm to humankind and its failings. Everyone was, at a minimal estimate, a "good egg" or "a decent sort," and motivation was never judged to be at variance with outward show. If there was mystery or contradiction in a friend, Leon took the long view and found a benign explanation. Literature and politics, science and religion did not bore him – they simply had no place in his world, and nor did any matter about which people seriously disagreed. He had taken a degree in law and was happy to have forgotten the whole experience. It was hard to imagine him ever lonely, or bored or despondent; his equanimity was bottomless, as was his lack of ambition, and he assumed that everyone else was much like him. Despite all this, his blandness was perfectly tolerable, even soothing.
One may complain that the rich violence of genius is generally lacking in McEwan; that his subjects are bereft of any spirituality and for that reason sink more deeply into oblivion; that his abuse of the comma borders on the egregious; but this passage is perfect. It gives us every nuance of those lads we all know that joke, backslap, and carouse their way into middle age without tasting anything akin to structure or system. And what becomes of these merry men is little different in fiction than in reality – but here I digress.
I have said nothing of the plot because the plot is patently ridiculous. This is, however, to McEwan's credit. Robbie and Cecilia share a few scenes that while appropriate for an equally admirable film, have little initial effect since they are based on nothing but supposition. That two people who grew up near one another in different social strata could fall in love remains one of art's most tested clichés, but we see little run-up to this great affair whose passion will suffuse Atonement with lyricism and regret. Despite this early blunder, the rest of the novel is magnificent in its pacing: half of it is allotted to two nights in the summer of 1935, because these will be the greatest and the most horrible nights in Cecilia and Robbie's young lives; a fifth – perhaps a symbolic bottle of liquor – advances us into the Second World War and wisely relents before we are overwhelmed by its stench and banalities; and a final thirty percent are devoted to Briony and a series of morally repulsive decisions. By dint of repetition, by blooding its characters to the wickedness of the world within and without their own private spheres, by ensuring the reader that what lies before him could very well be a fairy tale, McEwan leads us to believe in the vision of a thirteen-year-old girl, in her machinations, her fears, her wonderlands. Seeing the film might corrupt some details in the reader's mind (including the physical appearance of one of the characters which plays better on-screen but yields yet another problem of plausibility), but we are never engaged in mystification. What is told to us actually occurs, in the way it is described, and then is set aside to be reexamined when we remember an incongruity. Briony does write a play, she does see what she saw at the fountain, in the library, under the cover of night, except that everything to which she bears witness cannot be readily understood by the adolescent mind. I suppose that expiates her actions to a certain extent, although two characters will spend their entire lives promoting the contrary, even when Briony has decided that sacrifice and kindness are not alien to the artistic mind. And, as we know, literature has never been kind to chocolate manufacturers.