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ATONEMENT (article first published : 2001-12-3)

Where, one wonders, would the English novel have been without the English Country House? From Agatha Christie to Henry James (all right, American, but English by adoption) the country house has played a prominent part, providing a convenient Unity of Place and very often – in the classic Awful English Weekend - Unity of Time as well.

The first of the three parts of this excellent novel (McEwan won the Booker Prize in 1998) takes place in just such a house, complete with classical fountain, artificial lake and island and “crumbling stuccoed temple”. It is also equipped with a dysfunctional family. The Tallises: father, a civil servant, comes down only at weekends, if then; mother has crippling migraines (one of them occupies the whole of chapter 6); there are three children: two rather aimless young adults and Briony (13) who has aspirations to be a writer. There is also young Robbie Turner, who is a protégé of the Tallises and the son of their charlady. Matters are made worse by the arrival of three robust cousins and a friend of the son.

Dated? Of course, and intentionally so – it is a searingly hot summer in the year 1935, and the period is expertly evoked. Briony Tallis, literary imagination at the ready, witnesses two scenes involving her sister Cecilia and Robbie which are deeply unsettling for her. As a result, she falsely accuses Robbie of a sexual assault on her cousin. Entirely innocent, he is tried, convicted and jailed. We are made vividly aware of the power of trivial accidents to influence lives: two letters written, the wrong one put into the envelope and delivered; the presence of a child at a crucial moment.

The remainder of the book explores the themes of guilt, atonement and forgiveness as Briony tries to come to terms with her action and make amends for it. A friend once suggested to me that the English need a war every so often to make them behave properly, and of course a war is duly provided. The second part describes Robbie’s part in it as the British forces fall back on Dunkirk in 1940 and Briony’s experiences as a nurse in a London hospital at the time. The writing reminded me of the cool detachment of H E Bates’s wartime novels, and it makes compulsive reading.

Part Three sees Briony in old age, reflecting on her life as a writer, which she has indeed become: “How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?” Well, (in McEwan’s case) he would be less likely to need atonement if he refrained from reminding us that his characters, in whom we have come to believe, are really nothing but puppets. But it must be very tempting for a novelist to do so, and the book remains a fine achievement.

Atonement is on this year’s Exclusive Books Publishers’ Choice 2001. Published by Jonathan Cape, it retails at R174. – Tim Dodson




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