Atonement is a post-modernist interpretation of historical fiction. How historical fiction is a kind of double fiction, a fiction within a fiction. Not that McEwan’s intellectual mischief detracts from his gift for storytelling. For this is a compelling and moving story and it’s not until the end that we are called upon to question the roots of storytelling. How all the stories we tell require a measure of illusion to sustain them. And how narrative itself is a selective process – brilliantly exposed here when Robbie sends the wrong letter to Cecelia.
The atmospheric ideal drift of life on a country estate replete with overly familial class divisions quotes early/middle 20th century historical fiction themes with a slightly troubling fidelity to clichéd tropes. For a while it’s almost as if McEwan has gone soft in his old age. But it’s as if he is working his way through 20th century British literature in this novel whose subject, beneath the ostensible one of guilt and atonement, is essentially narrative itself. To the clichéd backdrop of the country estate he brings in Virginia Woolf’s floating impressionistic technique of creating biography, Lawrence’s use of the repressed sex instinct as plot crucible and catalyst and Forster’s showdown moment in the Maribor cave when deep seated submerged prejudice and crowd contagion convince everyone of guilt. It’s almost as if McEwan is playfully writing himself into British literary history.
The second part is all gritty realism – a high definition account of the brutalities of war. One effect of war is to scramble formerly sustaining narratives. This is what happens to both Robbie and Briony. His experience of blame and hers of guilt change. War provides Briony with the possibility of atonement in the form of self-sacrifice and bullies Robbie into understanding that holding one individual to account for his wretched fate is absurd. Both begin to construct a new narrative, no more true perhaps than the former. Because this is a novel about the enormous power but, at bottom, creative inauthenticity of narrative. We believe in what it is necessary for us to believe.