With Atonement, Ian McEwan has written an exquisitely crafted novel of psychological realism that quietly examines the crumbling of a family in England during the Second World War. Poignantly, the family's demise is precipitated by an error in judgment by the central character, precocious teenager Briony, who tries to atone for her mistake by writing a book that will set things right.
Like a Joseph Cornell box construction or a dollhouse made of meat, the novel draws you in with a misleading air of nostalgia--a child writer plying her fresh skills; a well-to-do family, the Tallises, who made their fortune on padlock patents, gathering in their quaint English home in the summer. But you soon realize that things are askew beneath the tranquil surface: The family patriarch is absent; the matriarch is immobilized by migraines and tries to run things from her bed; the daughter is in love with the housekeeper's son, who is fomenting class rebellion. And outside, of course, the world is embarking on a world war.
McEwan is a master at placing characters quickly and rock-solidly in our consciousness. Here is matriarch Emily Tallis thinking about Paul Marshall, a friend of her son who goes on to make a fortune making a candy bar called Amo for the allied forces during World War II: "Thinking of the dinner again--how artfully Mr. Marshall had put everyone at ease. . . . It was a pity about his looks, with one half of his face looking like an over-furnished bedroom. Perhaps in time it would come to seem rugged, this chin like a wedge of cheese."
Throughout this sleek read, one senses that just as Briony tries to atone for her youthful error by writing about it as an adult, McEwan reaffirms the act of creation as a way to capture some inner peace against the ravages of time and human nature. People may be fated in life to struggle against their health, class, and political circumstances, but in art they can find justice and understanding. McEwan leads us by the hand (without manipulating our emotions) down an ornate corridor and then deposits us alone in a chair and shows us exactly where it hurts to be human and why. Atonement is one of the best contemporary novels this reviewer has read in years.