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The End of Innocence

Daphne Merkin is the author of a novel, "Enchantment," and a collection of essays, "Dreaming of Hitler."

For decades now Americans have been on the lookout for the Great American Novel, a work of fiction that captures the essential truths about the way we live now. We elevate one writer after another--first Don DeLillo, then Jonathan Franzen--in the belief that the American sensibility is the best lens for viewing the human condition in the 20th century, or the 21st century for that matter. Yet such a thought only reveals the brazen Yankee conviction that we are the center of the world.

Novelist Ian McEwan makes quite clear just how foolish this assumption is, having written in “Atonement” what might be called the Great British Novel, a book that invites us to look at the particulars of modern English history and the cataclysmic changes that have, willy-nilly, shaken up our Western notion about the inviolable nature of cultural norms. What he has to say about social bonds, familial allegiance, uncensored libido and base aggression leads the reader to an empathic perspective that extends well beyond his immediate shores.

I suppose if anyone was going to aim this high, it is not surprising that it should turn out to be Mc- Ewan, whose prolific literary gifts have been evident from the beginning. Already with his first novel, “The Cement Garden,” in which he depicted the gradual descent into a “Lord of the Flies"-like primitivism of four orphaned children who have buried their mother’s corpse in the cellar, he demonstrated his ability to fuse the most attenuated of psychological observations with a gripping and fast-paced plot.

Over the next 25 years, McEwan went on to publish a stream of stories and novels, most of which were suffused with a casually Gothic atmosphere that dealt with intimations of evil in the everyday. “The Comfort of Strangers” (which was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1981) moves smoothly from tender sunlit moments to bone-chilling encounters as a young couple sightseeing in Venice is lured into lethal erotic games, while “Black Dogs” considers “the hollow feeling of unbelonging” in a world haunted by the cruel ideologies of Europe’s recent past.

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Although McEwan quickly carved out a distinctive terrain--he was once known as Ian Macabre because of his fascination with the deviant impulses that exist alongside civilized ones--his sensibility has always been hard to place, much less to predict. This is attributable both to the range of his interests (which include a more than passing acquaintance with science and music) and to the suppleness of his prose (which fluctuates between an almost clinical bluntness and a poetic allusiveness).

The two novels that preceded “Atonement,” for instance, are as different in tone and subject as might be expected to come out of the imagination of one author. “Enduring Love” (1997), a mesmerizing account of a pathological obsession which occurs as a result of a freak ballooning accident, is the most accomplished of McEwan’s novels until now. But as befits the impenetrable logic of prize-giving, it was his next novel, “Amsterdam” (1998), a lightweight farce that throws a wrench into the oleaginous contentment of two successful middle-aged men, that won the Booker Prize several years ago.

“Atonement,” also short-listed for the Booker Prize, is a work of vaulting ambition which just also happens to be a page-turner. I sat down to read it late one night and didn’t look up for the next three hours, until the cramp in my neck became too strong to ignore; after that, I found myself deliberately slowing my pace so as to make the experience of reading it last longer.

The novel is shaped like an uneven triptych, whose three parts artfully jump-cut across 60 years of recent history. The first and longest section unfolds in its minutely detailed entirety on a hot summer day in 1935; the second is set during the British trek through Northern France en route to Dunkirk and in a military hospital; and the third is told in the first person by an elderly, much-acclaimed writer in contemporary London on the eve of her birthday celebration.

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The opening section introduces us to the novel’s unsuspecting protagonist, a precocious and solitary 13-year-old living in a grand “baronial-Gothic” country house. Briony Tallis is “the sort of girl who lived in her thoughts,” and she commits her fantasies to paper as she aspires to win the admiration of the distracted adults around her: a semi-invalid mother, a father who is kept busy in London by his job in the Ministry and by his mistress, as well as two adored older siblings. The result of her efforts is a play called “The Trials of Arabella,” which she hopes to stage with the help of a trio of cousins who have come to stay with her family because of their parents’ impending divorce. When one of the cousins accuses the willful Briony of “showing off,” she is in happy agreement: “This was precisely why she loved plays, or hers at least; everyone would adore her.”

But not everyone, as it turns out, dances to Briony’s tune (or, as she sees it, the “good sense” which informs her directorial vision), at least not Robbie Turner, the charlady’s son, who has been put through Cambridge by Briony’s father and is on a theoretically equal footing with her family. Although Briony is “possessed by a desire to have the world thus so,” the world outside her imagination is distressingly hard to read: “This was not a fairy tale, this was the

The tragic repercussions--Robbie is imprisoned for a rape he did not commit; Cecilia breaks off with her family--continue to play out for years. Robbie, freed from prison, is caught on the gory battlefields of World War II (this section of the novel bears the marks of intensive research, which McEwan uses to extraordinarily vivid effect), and Briony attempts to atone for the damage she has wreaked by caring for the wounded and dying after the retreat from Dunkirk.

Ultimately, though, Briony, who has gone on to become a writer, attempts to salvage this dark tale by retelling it again and again and, in the end, by giving it the benefit of her magisterial and forgiving embrace. She defends her creative license, as self-serving as it may be, on the grounds that she is offering hope to the reader. “Who would want to believe that the young lovers never met again, never fulfilled their love?” she muses to herself the day after her birthday celebration, in the last pages of the book. “Who would want to believe that, except in the service of the bleakest realism?”

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The canvas of “Atonement” is stretched wider than in McEwan’s previous works, and its elaborate interweaving lends a new depth to his voice (which has sometimes verged on the facile) without sacrificing any of its characteristic propulsive energy. The novel teems with musings on the unforeseen quirks of causality, the multiplicity of selves that reside within a single character and the writerly desire to wring a coherent fiction out of the chaos of reality. It also, not insignificantly, contains one of the more erotically charged scenes I’ve read. There is something remarkably elastic and unegotistical about McEwan’s approach to fiction; one feels that he has less need to assert his sovereignty over his material than to take the measure of whatever situation he chooses to write about.

To this end, “Atonement” bears traces of many literary influences (Jane Austen, E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen) and wears many hats, reading by turns like a traditional Forsythean saga, a postmodern narrative and a romantic thriller. The double-barreled ending, which seems--and it’s a mere quibble--one virtuosic gesture too many, puts me in mind of John Fowles’ “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.” Finally, though, “Atonement” puts me in mind of what made me an avid reader in the first place, before I lost that original sense of exhilaration. In the seriousness of its intentions and the dazzle of its language, it made me starry-eyed all over again on behalf of literature’s humanizing possibilities.

*

From ‘Atonement’

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Trapped between the urge to write a simple diary account of her day’s experiences and the ambition to make something greater of them that would be polished, self-contained and obscure, she sat for many minutes frowning at her sheet of paper and its infantile quotation and did not write another word. Actions she thought she could describe well enough, and she had the hang of dialogue. She could do the woods in winter, and the grimness of a castle wall. But how to do feelings? All very well to write, She felt sad, or describe what a sad person might do, but what of sadness itself, how was that put across so it could be felt in all its lowering immediacy? Even harder was the threat, or the confusion of feeling contradictory things. Pen in hand, she stared across the room toward her hard-faced dolls, the estranged companions of a childhood she considered closed. It was a chilly sensation, growing up.


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