Ian McEwan is widely considered to be one of the most important novelists writing in English. He studied with Malcolm Bradbury and August Wilson at the University of East Anglia, and he began winning awards early in his career. These included the 1976 Somerset Maugham Award for his first collection of short stories, First Love, Last Rites (1975); the 1987 Whitbread Novel Prize for The Child in Time (1987); and the 1998 Man Booker Prize for Amsterdam (1998). Atonement won the W. H. Smith Literary Award and the National Book Critics’ Circle Fiction Award, among others. McEwan has also written children’s books, screenplays, and librettos.
McEwan’s earlier works earned him the nickname Ian Macabre for their graphic depictions of violence and sex. His work later shifted from elaborately detailed settings and scenes to extensive exploration of characters’ thoughts and emotional states. He became interested in language as a medium of both communication and miscommunication, declaring that he wanted to “explore all the comic and tragic possibilities that occur when perfectly well-meaning people can fall foul of each other, simply through misunderstanding.”
Atonement hinges on just such misunderstandings. Part 1 of the novel shifts back and forth between Briony’s, Cecilia’s, and Robbie’s perspectives. By showing how each character perceives the events of the day, and how each event leads to further developments and greater misunderstanding, McEwan achieves a remarkable sense of realism both in each individual character and in the unfolding of rather extreme circumstances. In doing so, one reviewer writes, he has created the perfect fictional medium for showing trauma’s “blind spots and sneaky obliquities.” The central trauma is effaced by the ways the characters deal with its aftermath.
McEwan’s interest in language and writing comes through in Briony, the aspiring writer. She is very conscious, at age thirteen, of being on the cusp of adult knowledge and experience, and the danger she thinks Robbie poses to her sister challenges her writerly desire to make her world orderly and clear; she is suddenly aware of “the strangeness of the here and now, of what passed between people, the ordinary people that she knew” and how easy it might be to misunderstand. In casting herself as the heroine who will protect her sister, it is Briony herself who gets it tragically wrong.
Briony’s meeting with Cecilia and Robbie in her sister’s flat five years later forms a potential turning point in all their lives; however, the jump to 1999 undercuts the sense of closure. Some critics see Briony’s afterword as a bit of postmodern sleight of hand, but it continues McEwan’s theme of the power and limitations of language. Briony’s novel (parts 1 through 3 of the novel) gives her partial atonement by providing space for her sister and Robbie to be together, but as she still worries, “how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?” She is able to write a happy ending for Robbie and Cecilia, but she is unable to make them forgive her, even in her novel.
The novel’s lovers are equally interesting in their own right, negotiating issues of sexual and romantic attraction amid class tensions. Cecilia’s higher class status has been upstaged by Robbie’s superior performance at Cambridge. Additionally, their time at school together has distanced them from the childhood friends they once were, and they do not immediately recognize their own mutual attraction.
McEwan presents Robbie and Cecilia’s scenes with great detail and subtlety, both interior and exterior. Robbie is aware of his feelings for Cecilia first, and as he dresses for dinner he frames his feelings for her in terms of the Freudian theory he read at college. His mistake in sending the sexually explicit letter represents a classic Freudian moment when a repressed desire escapes into expression. The scene in which Cecilia chooses a dress for the dinner party, her feelings for Robbie not yet clear to her, similarly ties physical action to barely acknowledged mental and emotional states.
Atonement is also a historical novel, most dramatically so in the second half of the novel. Robbie’s experience of the British retreat to Dunkirk—the culmination of an early, disastrous campaign in France—reflects the futility of his relationship with Cecilia once the series of misunderstandings has been set in motion. Briony’s nursing training and role in treating those first waves of casualties similarly casts the uselessness of her actions (attempting to atone by becoming a nurse like Cecilia) in the face of an overwhelming historical event. The scope of the events unfolding around Briony and the lovers in the second half has the effect of elevating their own personal tragedies to the level of the historical.