the art of ending things

Why the End of Atonement Is a Triumph for Unreliable Narrators

Ian McEwan on the cover of his 2001 book. Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; Photo by Penguin RandomHouse

Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel Atonement opens with a description of what it’s like to invent a world. Briony Tallis, 13 years old and enthralled by the power of storytelling (“you had only to write it down and you could have the world”) has written a little play for her family. She’s also “designed the posters, programs, and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crepe paper.” Every aspect of production of the seven-page drama, “written by her in a two-day tempest of composition,” fiercely belongs to her, and McEwan hovers over her labors like God dictating the Genesis story.

It’s easy to forget the beginning of a novel that became famous, in part, for its tablecloth-pulling ending. But Atonement has the power to send you scurrying back to its first pages once you finish, ready to play whack-a-mole with its wiggly circularity. It’s a book about misinterpretations that McEwan expects to be misinterpreted until its very last pages, when we find out that the entire book we’ve just read is the sixth draft of a novel by a much-older, quite successful Briony, making her both the unreliable narrator and the unreliable author. In between is a plot borne of Austen and Richardson that sweeps through the long 19th century of realist sagas, wiggles into Modernism, and ends on a postmodern questioning of the worth of the novel itself. It’s a feat of pastiche that transcends pastiche: It preserves the intoxication of narrative fiction while admitting that it’s farce.

Critics and book buyers agreed it was a masterpiece. Atonement became one of the first additions to the 21st-century canon after its publication in the U.K. twenty years ago, with a quarter million copies going into print in the U.S. alone before it won the National Books Critics Circle Award in 2003. (When he handed in the Atonement manuscript, McEwan told me, he informed his editor they’d be “lucky to sell 10,000 copies … because it’s really a book for other writers about reading and writing.” His editor told him it would sell in huge numbers “because it’s got the three elements that make it a must: a country house, the Second World War, a love affair.” It’s now sold over 2 million copies worldwide.) Academics wrote papers about it with hazy titles like “The Rhetoric of Intermediality” and “Briony’s Being-For” and it was made into a 2007 movie starring period-piece queen Keira Knightley and directed by Joe Wright, fresh off his debut Pride & Prejudice remake. And readers still gush — and whine — on book forums and reading sites about that witchy ending.

Briony’s revelation at the end that she’s reshaped this story to her whims turns her into a kind of god, master of all narratives and shaper of fates. Which leaves us her pawns, delighted little fools pulled along on a con. Atonement is, as the title asserts, Briony’s apology to the people whose lives she’s used to populate her story. But it’s also her masterpiece, proof that her regrets won’t stop her from plundering one last time. Its ending reminds readers that fiction without misrepresentation is impossible.

Atonement’s first three parts are told from multiple points of view — including that of Briony, the youngest of three siblings. The first and longest section is set in 1935 over the course of one roasting hot day and night at the Tallis family’s grand country home in the Surrey Hills. Precocious Briony has a “passion for tidiness” of all kinds; the darling of the family, her writing has been praised and encouraged to excess. Her older sister Cecelia, a restless recent graduate of the ladies’ college at Cambridge, is working through a newfound sex-tinged awkwardness with Robbie Turner, their charlady’s son and her childhood playmate. Like any good mother and father in a coming-of-age novel, the Tallis parents are a scant presence.

When Briony sees Cecelia and Robbie arguing by the fountain under her bedroom window, she imagines their quarrel — which is really over a broken heirloom vase — into her own (mis)understanding of how narrative works: Cecelia is the victim, Robbie the dastardly villain. That evening, she’ll misunderstand twice more. First, she sneakily opens a letter from Robbie to Cecelia that ends with the line “In my dreams I kiss your cunt, your sweet wet cunt.” She determines he’s a maniac, and later, when she walks in on them screwing in the family’s library, immediately assumes Robbie is raping her sister. Later, out searching the grounds for her visiting relatives, she makes out two figures in the tall grass, one “backing away from her and beginning to fade,” the other a frantic, disheveled Lola, her 15-year-old cousin. “In an instant, Briony understood completely,” McEwan writes. “She was nauseous with disgust and fear.” She isn’t sure, but tells Lola, “It was Robbie.” Lola never agrees with her, and the narrator hints that Briony is mistaken, but the police believe a child’s version of events, just as we eventually do. Robbie is wrongly branded a child rapist and hauled off.

The next two sections are set five years in the future, in 1940, as Europe steps into war. We first follow Robbie, released from prison to serve in the military, as he walks 25 miles toward the beach at Dunkirk, determined to return home to Cecelia despite the shrapnel lodged just below his heart. The next part returns to London, and to Briony, now 18, training as a war nurse and drafting “Two Figures by a Fountain,” a novella in impressions, based on the argument between Cecelia and Robbie that she saw from her bedroom window. Now wise to her own self-delusion and exhausted by guilt, she visits Cecelia to recant her accusation — and sees her sister reunited with Robbie, who insists that Briony do everything in her power to clear his name. Voilà, it’s the “atonement” readers expect.

Until now, a lovely, straightforward British wartime novel, full of wispy silk chiffon skirts and the buzz of the RAF — but then comes the coda. Leaping forward to 1999, we meet 77-year-old Briony as an established novelist, finishing up what will be her final manuscript: the novel we’ve just read, made of her memories, altered and reframed. She explains that Cecelia and Robbie really died in the Blitz and Dunkirk respectively. But “how could that constitute an ending?” Briony asks. “What sense of hope or satisfaction could a reader draw from such an account?” Distance, and six full drafts, have allowed her to riff.

This post-postmodern one-two punch knocked readers on their asses. While even the most formidable reviewers adored Atonement’s genius, calling it “a tour de force” and “a beautiful and majestic fictional panorama,” what criticism they did have was reserved for its last pages. James Wood, then ascendant at the New Republic, considered it “McEwan’s finest and most complex novel” while declaring the twist ending “unnecessary” and decrying its “neatness.” The Sunday Telegraph declared it “frustrating,” and Anita Brookner questioned its wisdom. Hermione Lee in the Guardian called it a “quite familiar fictional trick.” The general public is still at war with itself over how they feel. Last fall, the Washington Post reported on a reader-generated list of literature’s all-time most disappointing endings: Atonement was ranked second, just after Romeo and Juliet. “I was touched,” McEwan told me during a recent phone conversation, to be “right next to Shakespeare.”

“Over the years I’ve encountered many people who will be absolutely infuriated [by the ending],” he said with a little laugh. “But I can’t help feeling very flattered by that. Those are just the people I wanted to address, because they were heavily invested in the story.”

So while the “trick” at the end is the big reveal, the more rewarding aspect is the knowledge that hints about Atonement’s meticulous construction are hidden along the way. On a first reading, McEwan’s breadcrumb trail is barely visible, but on the second, it’s practically Day-Glo. Perhaps overconfident, (or more indebted to postmodernism herself than she lets on) Briony repeatedly drops hints that she was even manufacturing this story as a child, and that it is shifting and changing even as she writes it from the perch of old age. Just after she witnesses the fountain scene, Briony writes, she knew “that whatever actually happened drew its significance from her published work and would not have been remembered without it.”

In the third section, as an 18-year-old writer, Briony receives a helpful rejection letter from real-life (as in, actually real-life) magazine editor Cyril Connolly. He praises “Two Figures by a Fountain,” as “arresting,” though her style “owed a little too much to the techniques of Mrs. Woolf.” He reminds her to think of her readers: “They retain a childlike desire to be told a story, to be held in suspense, to know what happens.” Those last two phrases are diametrical, of course, which encapsulates the experiment of Atonement itself.

The ending isn’t a feather in the novel’s cap, tacked on unnecessarily as some critics lamented. It’s the novel’s reason for being. The little girl whose play once crumbled into a mire of familial infighting pulls off an incredible caper: She’s both offered a lengthy apology and finally written the ravishing novel that she once imagined, just minutes after watching that argument between Cecelia and Robbie by the fountain: “She sensed she could write a scene like the one by the fountain and she could include a hidden observer like herself. She could imagine herself hurrying down now to her bedroom, to a clean block of lined paper and her marbled, Bakelite pen.” As for Robbie and Cecelia — still loved by her, still dead — she pats herself on the back for reviving them in her fiction, which she calls “a final act of kindness … I gave them happiness, but I was not so self-serving as to let them forgive me.”

Briony knows that her novel won’t be published until after her death or incapacitation; she won’t experience censure or scandal. Perhaps the most subversive thing about Atonement is that its narrator isn’t hobbled by the weight of her guilt. Instead, she’s victorious: “She was under no obligation to the truth, she had promised no one a chronicle.”

I asked McEwan if some bit of Briony is triumphant. “I would take the Jamesian view,” he demurred, “that she’s lived the examined life.”

One that’s been examined — and fiddled with — until it’s no longer a life. It’s a novel.

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