By Ian McEwan.
Vintage, £7.99; 372 pp.
ISBN 0 099 42979 9
It does well to remember that everybody lies. Nobody is to be trusted. Not even established literary figures. In Atonement by Ian McEwan lies are the illusion of fiction. As readers we accept the illusion because we trust the writer. We believe the story is true. We ignore the fact that stories are untrue. We trust in characters who do not exist. We allow ourselves to be lied to by the author.
Atonement is written in four parts. The first gives an account of a day which ends with two crimes: a rape and a lie. The lie belongs to thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis. Her lie is the naming of Robbie Turner – her sister Cecilia Tallis’ lover – as the rapist. The outcome is the locking up of Robbie and a family who can’t talk to each other because of a lie.
The second part is the story of Robbie’s survival at Dunkirk – but remember stories are untruths – and his return to Cecilia. The third is the beginning of Briony’s quest for atonement. A quest which lasts her sixty years. Briony intends to atone herself through writing. We learn that she has written a novella about her crime and that a publisher has rejected it. When Robbie asks for a letter of explanation Briony’s response is not a letter but a new draft.
The final part is set in 1999. Briony who begins the novel as a child writer - we first meet her writing her melodrama The Trials of Arabella – ends the book a well-known writer. We learn that she continues to lie about her crime. She calls it ‘our crime’ believing that the rapist and victim – her cousin ‘from the north’ Lola - to be guilty of lying as well. By the end of the book she has rewritten her story – her atonement – until the end result is the novel Atonement.
But there is no atonement: The title is a suggestion – even a question – not a statement of fact. If the reader takes the title as a fact then it too becomes a lie. McEwan writes that the novelist is God because there is nothing higher than their imagination. An imagination which lies. The writer is a God who deludes people but cannot be atoned: "No atonement for God, or novelists" But gods – and therefore writers – do not need to achieve atonement. Briony tells us that attempting atonement is enough: "It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all."
Atonement is a book about lies and writers and the lies writers are allowed to create. It is a book which tells us we should not believe in fiction as truth. We should not trust writers – especially not Briony – because they tell stories. Writers are illusionists and Atonement is an illusion which exposes itself. Everybody in Atonement lies – to themselves and each other - and McEwan is a writer who tells us that writers are liars. So we shouldn’t trust him. But we do.
You'll have noticed I've added a few webside links to the sidebar. The link to Theatremonkey is for a wonderful site about London theatre - Mr Theatremonkey provided the name for this blog - and is well worth a visit. Peter Falconer and The Mutiny are an exciting new band based in Greater London and you can hear clips of their music and get the details for their gigs amongst other things. Of all the literature festivals in this country The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival has to be the best and the Edinburgh Book Festival is pretty much on the same level - I just wish it wasn't in Edinburgh, but it is true to say that when you are in one of those tents in Charlotte Square Gardens you could be anywhere you wanted to be! And because I'm very biased on the subject of AL Kennedy's books there is a link to her site as well.