Around 1986 or 1987, I went to a bookstore to find my next read. Now you know that I can’t go to scout out reading projects and leave without an hour, or at least not in those days when I took my time looking, analyzing, and deciding. I was bad at deciding and often left with a handful of novels to read. In those days, I bought books at a faster rate than I read them, and I was cool with that because, well, I have to read them all. There’s plenty of time! I read this and that and this novel and that collection of short stories, or a collection of poetry. I will have the time. Live is long, and I’m young.
What am I doing?
I’m telling you a story of when I purchased The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan, but it is just a story. I am a fiction writer—it’s what I do. In truth, I don’t remember how I came to own the book. Since I no longer have it, and since I never sell or give books away, I suspect that was a library book. In any case, upon reading the novel—about orphans living alone—I found it dark, even macabre. I had a new favorite writer to explore.
I have read four of his novels—Atonement makes five—and I found they all riveting. McEwan writes about darkness. He writes about man’s and woman’s secrets, secret desires, secret longings, secret behavior. Atonement is an exception to this because the central event—witnessing a rape—is widely known and discussed. The secret is who the accused rapist is.
Briony, a girl of thirteen and a born writer, and the character who witnessed the rape, blamed it on Robbie, the son of a servant. It took it place in the family park, at night, and she was far enough away from it to cast doubt on the rapist’s identity. But she knew it was Robbie, and she testified against him in court, insuring his conviction. Years later, as a young adult, she recanted the story to Robbie and Cecilia, her sister, whose now with Robbie. Cecilia never believed Briony’s story, and she was in love with Robbie. So when Briony recanted her story, when she told the truth about what she saw and, more precisely, what she did not see, when she atoned for her crime, everything was set right. Everybody went home happy.
Remember when I told you McEwan writes about darkness? You didn’t think that he suspended that for this novel, did you? Robbie’s life was ruined by this false accusation. Not only had he spend years in prison—three, I think—but Briony and Cecilia’s father was going to pay for his education, but the accusation changed his mind. And World War II intervened, and Robbie was caught up in the evacuation from Dunkirk. His life was forever changed by these events. How can he forgive her? Does she think that she can atone?
But McEwan is not done with you. He drove the knife into your gut, twisted it, and ribbed your inside out. The scene changed to London in 1999, and Briony was a successful writer. Oh, the revelation that we learned is heartbreaking. I won’t share it with you—that’s for you to find out for yourself—but it’s gut-wrenching.
I can never read British literature without thinking of class. As racism to American literature, class is to the English writer. Even today, class is talked about and taken seriously, with their host of Lords and Ladies, with their Sirs and Madams. Class is in this novel, because Briony, whose family was in the middle class, never doubted that her story had more weight than Robbie’s denials. As a member of the working class, Robbie was subjected to her whims and attitudes.
She walked directly toward the temple, and had gone seven or eight steps, and was about to call out the names of the twins, when the bush that lay directly in her path—the one she thought should be closer to the shore—began the break up in front or her, or double itself, or waver, and then fork. In was changing its shape in a complicate way, thinning at the base as a vertical column rose five or six feet. She would have stopped immediately had she not still been so completely bound to the notion that this was a bush, and that she was witnessing some trick of darkness and perspective. Another second or two, another couple of steps, and she saw that this was not so. Then she stopped. The vertical was was a figure, a person who was now backing away from her and beginning to fade into the darker background of the trees. The remaining darker patch on the ground was also a person, changing shape again as it sat up and called her name.
But who is Briony? Even as a young girl, she lived in fantasy. She preferred life in her fictional world to life as it is. I see myself in her, as I’m always inventing scenarios, always imagining myself in various roles. This week alone I imagined myself as a manager for a rock band, a corporate executive, a homicide detective, a secret warrior in the battle against white supremacists. I imagined myself in every role but as a writer of fiction, and that is okay because imagination is my chief job skill. I never know what will take root and grow into a story. My definition of fiction writing is “seeking the truth in lies.” Briony found her truth—the rapist is Robbie—and she never doubted it. At least, never until it was too late.
Ian McEwan—or Ian Macabre, his nickname—was born on June 21, 1948. Since his father was a military man, he spent his early years in Singapore, Germany, and Libya. He returned to England at 12. He was educated at the University of Sussex and the University of East Anglia. He lives in London with his second wife.
Atonement is the eighth novel by McEwan. In it, he displays maturity in the writing and understanding of the characters. Is it as sinister as The Cement Garden or The Comfort of Strangers, his second novel? I would say he ratcheted down the macabre, but in doing that, he created a story that is more engaging and more personal. And perhaps more realistic.