For one, Ian McEwans Booker Prize-nominated Atonement is his first novel since his marvelous Amsterdam took home the prize in 1998. For another, this is the second book of the new millennium, following The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen to truly deserve the label masterpiece.
One can only speculate as to why this elegant and engrossing novel, which will no doubt be referred to in years to come as one that played a key role in carrying on the rich tradition of British literature, was snubbed for the Booker Prize this year, but suffice it to say, that was a serious oversight.
And as for Amsterdam winning - well, the book was a knockout, but Atonement is such a superior work, taking McEwans considerable talents to new levels and demonstrating that he can work on the sort of expansive canvas and with the frighteningly accurate glimpse into humanity that Franzen did with The Corrections. Once you wade into the remarkable, unpredictable, and moving world of Atonement, you wont soon want to leave. In fact, it is hard for this reviewer to imagine not reading the book again, at least one more time, because there is so much to marvel at and savor.
The story begins on a brutally hot summer day in 1935 and centers around the wealthy Tallis family, who live in an English country manor. At the onset, 13-year-old Briony, who has a precocious personality and an overactive imagination, has written a play to honor the homecoming of her idolized older brother, banker Leon, who is bringing home a wealthy, but rather plain looking companion. McEwan sets the stage and pulls the reader in immediately with is uncanny sense of detail and gothic styling:
The play, for which Briony had designed the posters, programmes and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crepe paper, was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch. When the preparations were complete, she had nothing to do but contemplate her finished draft and wait for the appearance of her cousins from the distant north. There would be time for only one day of rehearsal before her brother arrived. At some moments chilling, at others desperately sad, the play told a tale of the heart whose message, conveyed in a rhyming prologue, was that love which did not build a foundation on good sense was doomed. The reckless passion of the heroine, Arabella, for a wicked foreign count is punished by ill fortune when she contracts cholera during an impetuous dash towards a seaside town with her intended... Mrs Tallis read the seven pages of The Trials of Arabella in her bedroom, at her dressing table, with the authors arm around her shoulder the whole while. Briony studied her mothers face for every trace of shifting emotion, and Emily Tallis obliged with looks of alarm, snickers of glee and, at the end, grateful smiles and wise, affirming nods. She took her daughter in her arms, onto her lap ah, that hot smooth little body she remembered from its infancy, and still not gone from her, not quite yet and said that the play was stupendous, and agreed instantly, murmuring into the tight whorl of the girls ear, that this word could be quoted on the poster which was to be on an easel in the entrance hall by the ticket booth. Briony was hardly to know it then, but this was the projects highest point of fulfilment. Nothing came near it for satisfaction, all else was dreams and frustration. There were moments in the summer dusk after her light was out, burrowing in the delicious gloom of her canopy bed, when she made her heart thud with luminous, yearning fantasies, little playlets in themselves, every one of which featured Leon... Her play was not for her cousins, it was for her brother, to celebrate his return, provoke his admiration and guide him away from his careless succession of girlfriends, towards the right form of wife, the one who would persuade him to return to the countryside, the one who would sweetly request Brionys services as a bridesmaid.
As the day continues, Briony sees her older sister Cecilia strip off her clothes and plunge into the fountain in their garden, something that seems to be tied to a mysterious relationship she has with Robbie Turner, the son of the familys housekeeper and a recent Cambridge graduate, like Cecilia, whose education has been subsidized by the Tallis family.
By the end of the day the lives of the threesome will be changed forever when a young cousin of the sisters is assaulted, and Briony pins the blame on Robbie, despite having committed a crime herself that will haunt her for the rest of her life. Robbie is jailed because of her testimony, though eventually freed after serving time. Much later, he becomes a soldier when the British enter WWII and Briony a nurse who desperately wants to make up for the wrong she did to him and Cecilia, who are now lovers.
In a manner that recalls great English novelists like Graham Greene, Virginia Wolff, and Henry James, McEwan time travels through locales and decades, moving from the Tallis manor house to the 1941 battle of Dunkirk and Londons military hospitals to a Tallis family reunion at the end of the century, all of which gives the author room to move and experiment as he explores his concepts of childhood, family relationships, vulnerability, love, class, war, redemption, shame, and forgiveness.
McEwan has always been a fine storyteller, but Atonement is extraordinarily rich in its psychological probing and sympathetic renderings of the human heart, and his trademarks of sentences packed to the hilt with eloquence, wit, and grace have never worked more in his favor. England has given the world many priceless things over the years - tea and crumpets, Shakespeare, Vivien Leigh, and The Beatles, to name a few. To that list, the name Ian McEwan must now be officially added.