Can we rewrite our history? So that separated lovers end up together? So that we are forgiven our sins? So that we are understood our motivations? Is atonement even possible? These questions are at the core of Ian McEwan’s brilliant book Atonement. I am probably the last person on the globe to read this book but I would like to add myself to its list of fans anyway.
Presented in three acts with an afterward, the plot is played out before us—delivered to us by the hands of Briony Tallis. In the beginning, she sets the stage, changes the course of fate and in the end she remains the puppet master. Of course, it is also the story of Robbie and Cee but they are more her characters through which we see the failings (and as she rewrites them, successes) of her life. In the end, it is not so much the tale of star-crossed lovers as it is story of the artist as a young woman.
Beautifully, richly told this book never stops surprising. Just when you think you have it all figured out, everything changes. Just as you believe that everything is going to be all right, that fulfillment is near—something else happens. In the end, atonement for Briony is as much a dream, a fable as the Trials of Arabella–possible but not real:
How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.