When it comes to the crimes of unbridled ego and bearing false witness, writers are habitual offenders. At the age of 13, Briony Tallis is a born writer. The intricate English girl at the center of Atonement (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday; 351 pages; $26) is a self-regarding child, the kind who keeps a toy farm in her bedroom with all the animals pointing toward her. Eager to superintend the lives of those around her, she believes that through her powers of invention and language, "an unruly world could be made just so." In a complicated way, she turns out to be right, but only after she turns out to be catastrophically wrong.
In the first half of Ian McEwan's novel, Briony passionately misunderstands a series of events she witnesses on a summer day in 1935, then tells a lie that ruins the lives of her older sister Cecilia and Cecilia's lover Robbie. So much for the virtues of the imagination. But McEwan is crafty. Even as he shows us the damages of story-telling, he demonstrates its beguilements on every page. Atonement is full of timeworn literary contrivances--an English country house, lovers from different classes, an intercepted letter--rendered with the delicately crafted understanding of E.M. Forster.
This is familiar terrain for McEwan. Betrayal by loved ones and the serene corruption of children are subjects he knows well. The incestuous siblings of his first novel, The Cement Garden, keep Mother buried belowstairs while they sport with each other above. The family dynamic in Atonement is less ghoulish but every bit as treacherous.
At its midpoint the novel moves forward five years to the ragged British retreat from Dunkirk, in which Robbie is a weary infantryman, then to London, where Briony, now a nurse trainee, is struggling to find some remedy for the damage she has done. Her solution is not plain until the surprising final pages, when you grasp that if storytelling can be an occasion for sin, it can also be an act of contrition. It's McEwan's subtle game to show fiction working its worst kind of curse, then leading us unawares to give it our blessing.
--By Richard Lacayo