I sure do like it when a book leaves me with mental puzzles to think about for days after I've finished. Just now, I've hit the end of Atonement by Ian McEwan, and my mind is just buzzing with all kinds of thoughts.
First, I have to say there will be numerous spoilers in this post, because I can't talk about the things I want to say without revealing most of what happens in the book. You were warned!
Where to start? I guess I'll take on the most obvious thing first, the title theme, the atonement. As we find out at the end of the book, the whole story is a draft of a novel written by Briony Tallis to try to atone for something she did when she was 13 that drastically altered the lives of her sister and a close family friend. Briony falsely accused the friend, Robbie Turner, of raping her cousin, and because Briony was so adamant in her insistence that she had seen Robbie leaving the scene, he was wrongly convicted and sent to prison. Briony's sister (Cecilia) and Robbie had only just come to understand that they loved each other, so of course Briony's accusation makes their budding romance even more difficult. The fallout of the accusation is not all on Cecilia and Robbie, however; as she grows up, Briony's guilt pushes her into a lifestyle of self-inflicted punishment and penance. She goes into training as a nurse rather than attending college, putting herself into circumstances in which she will be forced to do nasty and humbling things (like cleaning bedpans). At some point, Briony decides the best way to make atonement for ruining Robbie and Cecilia's lives is by confessing everything in writing, through a novel.
As I read the book, I kept flip-flopping on what I thought about this notion of atonement. Was writing the novel itself the atonement? Was giving Cecilia and Robbie the happy ending they never got in real life the atonement? Being a word nerd, I looked up "atonement" in the dictionary, thinking that might shed some light; the definition is, "reparation for an offense or injury; satisfaction." However, I believe my thinking throughout the book was more aligned with the definition the dictionary labels as obsolete: "reconciliation." While Briony may mean the story to serve as reparation for the damage to Cecilia and Robbie, I think it may actually be more of a reconciliation--and not with the injured parties. Again, I'm going to the dictionary for some definitions of "reconcile": "to restore to friendship or harmony; settle; resolve"; "to cause to submit to or accept something unpleasant"; "to account for." All of those seem to be a better fit than "reparation" to describe Briony's atonement.
In the first section of the book, I found Briony to be completely unsympathetic. She is a self-centered, indulged child with a nearly pathological need for order (one of the first details we learn about her is that she has all her toys lined up in strict order). At the beginning, she has written a play to celebrate a visit by her adored older brother--but it's clear the real motive is to get his praise and attention for herself. When the cousins, Lola and her twin brothers, move in because their parents have recently divorced, Briony forces them into helping her put on the play. But when Lola smoothly commandeers the lead role that Briony wrote for herself, and when the twins prove incapable of performing the play the way she had envisioned it, Briony simply walks away and abandons the whole project. I also detest the way she was always imposing herself into things that were not her business. When Robbie asks her to give a note to Cecilia, Briony reads it first. She later catches the two of them in a tryst in the family library. On second thought, maybe I should give Briony a break; she was simply trying to make sense of things she saw. I guess the thing that really bothered me about her, though, is that there was nothing provisional about her thought processes. Everything she saw added up to only one unquestioned conclusion (a conclusion that suited her own purposes, by the way): Robbie was a dangerous sex maniac.
(A quick explanation of the "suited her own purposes" comment - in describing Briony's reaction to Robbie's note, McEwan says, "Something irreducibly human, or male, threatened the order of their household, and Briony knew that unless she helped her sister, they would all suffer." No, Briony. No one's going to suffer except you. Just as with your play, things wouldn't be going YOUR way. Therefore, Robbie had to be out of the picture.)
After Briony has committed her "crime" (as she puts it), we don't see her again until she's 18 years old and in nurse's training. She has rejected her family's money and position and the possibility of a university education. I'm not completely sure what motivated her doing this. Toward the end of the book, she tells Robbie (in a fictionalized account) that "growing up" is what made her decide she needed to somehow atone for what she had done. However, I think she may be fooling herself. Her choices put her in the role of an abject penitent, and while I think she believes she's sincere, I think maybe she's overreacting the same way she did when her play fell apart. Punishing herself allows her to be in control of the mess everything turned out to be. The reason she accused Robbie was to get him away from Cecilia so the "order of their household" could be preserved. However, it didn't work out that way at all. Cecilia cut herself off from her family entirely, leaving not long after Robbie was sentenced to prison, going to become a nurse (notice any pattern there? Briony couldn't even be original in the penance she set for herself). The "order of the household" is broken for good. As far as I can tell, Cecilia never had any contact with her family again. But while Briony is paying for her crimes, she's doing it on her own terms. Even in her fictionalized account, she writes the scene so Robbie and Cecilia won't forgive her.
Briony plays the role of penitent with the zeal of a martyr, but at some point, she decides writing everything down is the best way to make up for her errors. Well, of course it is. As a writer, one is completely in control of everything that happens in the story. As she says near the end, "If I really cared so much about facts, I should have written a different kind of book." The act of writing the story, setting things in order--the order she wanted it to have--brings her back to being who she wants to be, and at the end of the book, we have a cozy scene in which Briony, now an old woman, is surrounded by her large and seemingly very happy family as they stage that play she wrote at age 13. For Briony, writing the book was an atonement, bringing her back to a state of harmony with family, giving her a chance to account for what happened--on her own terms. Of course, it did nothing for Robbie and Cecilia. We learn in that last section that Robbie died in France during the retreat from Dunkirk and that Cecilia was killed in one of the bombings of London; they never had a chance to be together, except as characters in Briony's novel. But for Briony, that's enough to atone for what she did to them.
In the final pages of the novel, Briony argues, "When I am dead...and the novel is finally published, we will only exist as my inventions....No one will care what events and which individuals were misrepresented to make a novel....I like to think that it isn't weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them at the end...."
That passage brings to mind two other things I've read before. The first is Roderick Townley's children's book, The Great Good Thing, which deals with that very theme--the life that literary characters have, only in the minds of their readers. The other is Nicholas Sparks' The Notebook, which ends with a main character who has lost the reality of her life because of dementia (or Altzheimer's - I can't remember which) (that's not a sign of dementia, is it? ha). The only way her life and her love with her husband survive is through the notebook into which the husband has written their love story, which he reads to her every night. Maybe Briony is on to something. Maybe life on the page is enough to give characters life in the mind (I think I remember a scene in The Great Good Thing in which the characters actually leap from the page into the mind of a reader to save themselves).
Now, I'm not so crazy as to say that reality in a book rivals actual reality. But stories do seem to take on a reality of their own -- my sister and I (maybe both of us a little nuts, haha) talk about the characters in my story as if they were real, living people from the historic past. When it's cold, damp weather, one of us will say something to the other like, "Man, John David and Maggie would be miserable today." I know I completely fabricated those characters. I know they never existed anywhere except in the pages of my story. Yet they have become real enough that they can move beyond the confines of their own plot to "live" in other situations, too--not just for me, their creator, but for at least one other reader. The point Briony makes is that the characters will exist, with the substance the writer gave them, so long as a copy of the story exists. If the story continues to have readers, those characters will keep having life long after the writer is nothing but a name on the cover of the book (or a byline on an e-book).
Wow. That's a lot to wrap my mind around. And that's just one of the puzzles in Atonement. I'll write about another tomorrow.