…the first section, set in a country house in 1935, is a brilliant feat of storytelling, whereby McEwan manages both to sound like McEwan and not quite like himself.
The novel’s bloody illustrations of the horrors of war compel assent and pity, and yet, such is the novel reader’s romantic nature, it is the lovers that keep us turning the page; theirs is the consummation we devoutly wish. Our wish is granted, but with a duplicitous art.
A novelist’s responsibility to her characters is not at all the same thing as her responsibility to other, real, people. Atonement is an ethical rather than an aesthetic idea; it doesn’t make sense to talk about atoning to a fictional being. Briony seems not to notice this—which is in character, since her sense of other people’s existence was always weaker than her wish to have the world “just so.”
It is, in perhaps the only possible way, a philosophical novel, pitting the imagination against what it has to imagine if we are to be given the false assurance that there is a match between our fictions and the specifications of reality. The pleasure it gives depends as much on our suspending belief as on our suspending disbelief.
The technical mastery of the book’s first act and its A Farewell to Arms-rivaling retreat sequence is the work of a deft craftsman, but the lingering disquiet of its final section is the work of an artist.— Brian Flanagan