The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985. These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of The New
Canon, Ted Gioia reviews
Atonement by Ian McEwan.
by Ian McEwan
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
There were so many ways Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement might
have gone wrong. If book critics were like Olympic diving judges
and factored in “degree of difficulty,” they would treat McEwan’s
story line as if it were a back-flying two-and-a-half somersault. If
this were NASCAR, fans would be waiting
for the first big crash.
How do you get all this stuff to cohere in a
single volume? After all, here is a book
that leaves the starting-gate as a Jane
Austen country manor romance and
crosses the finish line as a post-modern
meta-fiction. Along the way, we get a
World War II historical piece and a
hyper-realistic account of a nurse’s
life—both of which could stand alone
as novellas—and don’t forget the
“wronged man” crime mystery, or the
steamy scene in the library that would
leave them blushing and breathless at
The Jane Austen Society.
Yes, this book might have collapsed under its own weight and the
dizzying range of effects that McEwan attempts to incorporate in its
pages. But it doesn't fail, it succeeds stunningly, despite the mid-air
spins and back-flips. The author is in total control—as, indeed, he
needs to be to pull off his plan. This book starts out solidly, and just
gets better and better. At every twist and turn in the plot (and,
heaven knows, there are plenty of them), McEwan delivers the
goods. Yet he also manages to hold the biggest surprise in his back
pocket for the very end of the novel.
McEwan has demonstrated in other settings his preference for
clever and convoluted plots. Just check out the double zinger at the
end of Amsterdam or the turnabout at the conclusion of Saturday.
Not many serious authors these days will dare build these
Dickensian structures. We all know about British understatement,
but even the Yanks are quite comfortable with plots that never
resolve, with books that end with a ugly phlatttt!!!—leaving the
reader wondering whether the remaining chapters got left out by
mistake. Not with Ian McEwan. He believes that a story, like a game
of chess, should move from opening to mid-game to end-game to a
clear and satisfying resolution. And nowhere is this demonstrated
with more virtuosity than in Atonement.
But the real draw to this book is not the complex story line, but
rather McEwan’s sheer mastery of the narrative. At every phase of
Atonement, McEwan tests his powers and demonstrates his
unflagging skill—at setting a scene, drawing it out with the right
degree of description and detail, highlighting the telling incident
within the incident, setting the balance between the physical and
psychological aspects at hand . . . in short, getting everything just
You can’t teach this at a creative writing program or summer camp
for aspiring littérateurs. Certainly McEwan works diligently and has
mastered his craft, but he also possesses an instinct for what works
and what doesn’t. For example, much has been made of McEwan
borrowing from Lucilla Andrews’s memoirs of her time as a nurse in
a London hospital during World War II. The charges were
overblown, and McEwan, for his part, had been open in citing this
source for his book long before the press picked up on it. Yet the
connection is all the more revealing of this novelist’s skill. He
understood exactly which tiny details and descriptions from
Andrews’ book could serve as building blocks for the high drama of
Atonement. In his hands, a nurse’s day-to-day responsibilities take
on a vivid intensity that almost matches the battlefield sequence at
the center of his novel.
Ah, the battlefield section . . . But no, not really a battlefield
description in any conventional sense of the term—since there is
more field than battle here. In another daring move, McEwan
leaves out almost all of the fighting from his World War II interlude,
and instead focuses on the retreat and evacuation from Dunkirk.
This was that tragic moment when "the whole root, the core, and
brain of the British Army," as Winston Churchill described it, were
left stranded and exposed on the coast while waiting for their rescue.
Hundreds of thousands of men waiting . . . and waiting . . . and
waiting. No, this is not your usual subject for a spirited war story.
Yet McEwan takes this low point in the unfolding of World War II
and builds it into one of the most remarkable pieces of historical
fiction of recent memory.
By this point in Atonement we are about as far away from the Jane
Austen-esque opening as imaginable. Yet McEwan surprisingly,
determinedly, works his way back, creating a novel that eventually
returns full circle to its opening pages. But, as fiction often teaches
us, the innocent past can never really be recaptured. And McEwan’s
provocative new twist on this truism gives Atonement an
emotionally shattering conclusion. In a book that has already
achieved such high points, only the grandest of endings could cap it
off appropriately. McEwan pulls out all the stops here, and rolls the
dice, saving his riskiest move for last. But as they say, bet and win.
And in Atonement, Ian McEwan does just that.
|The Best in Fiction Since 1985