Atonement, the 2001 novel by British author Ian McEwan, is a landmark of contemporary literary fiction, imbued throughout with the very craft elements that define this sub-genre: well-developed characters; a complex story line; and gorgeous, often poetic narrative. McEwan makes his story even more intriguing by presenting Atonement as work of meta-fiction—a novel “written” by protagonist Briony Tallis, who hopes to resolve in prose a transgression that she committed at the age of thirteen, when, out of spite one night in 1935, she accused an innocent man, Robbie Turner, of twice raping her fifteen year-old cousin, Lola Quincey.
To present the events of that “most appalling evening,” McEwan assumes artistic license in terms narrative voice as well, employing an omniscient point-of-view to identify the true culprit for readers, while at the same time creating and maintaining the veil of presumption that allows him to escape suspicion.
The scene is a stifling summer day at the Tallis family manor in southern England. Fifteen year-old Lola Quincey and her younger twin brothers, described in the narrative as “refugees from a bitter domestic civil war,” have come to lodge with the Tallises while their flighty, self-absorbed parents’ divorce plays out. As it happens, the perpetrator of the crime, Paul Marshall, a confections tycoon and friend of Briony’s elder brother, Leon, has also just arrived from London for a weekend in the country. An unfortunate coincidence if ever there was one.
Immediately the omniscient narrator begins dropping clues—with details perceived by individual characters—that raise readers’ questions about Paul Marshall. Unfortunately, the characters themselves don’t always draw the proper conclusions. Briony Tallis’ older sister, Cecilia, for example, becomes immediately aware of the young tycoon’s roving eye, as well as his proclivity for salacious groping. But, at the same time, she also notes that a family servant, young Danny Hardman, has been suspiciously “hanging around the children lately”—an observation that only clouds her judgment later.
Also, at the time of the initial assault—which occurs in the nursery and is not depicted explicitly—Emily Tallis, Briony’s mother, actually hears the sounds of Marshall engaging with Lola. Plagued by migraine headaches and often bedridden, Emily has developed an acute, “tentacular awareness” of noises in her home; but unfortunately, her heightened sense does not awaken her suspicions in the least. Rather than pondering the meaning of Marshall’s unlikely presence in the nursery, she instead hopes that her niece and nephews are showing him due respect. And moments later, after the twins have been called down for their baths, Emily hears Lola emit a “little squeal of laughter” that is “abruptly smothered,” and muses how the “wealthy entrepreneur might not be such a bad sort, if he [is] prepared to pass the time of day entertaining children.”
McEwan lends an especially chilling aspect to the moments leading up to the first rape, by crafting a scene with rapidly-shifting points of view. This brief section is also the most omnisciently-narrated portion of the book, as it incorporates the perceptions of Lola, the twins, and even Marshall himself. It also introduces the peculiar complication of Lola’s adolescent flirtation with Paul Marshall, a twist which makes better sense later in the book, when readers discover that the predatory encounter in the nursery was merely the beginning of a lifelong relationship between the two.
But at this stage, readers only have the unfolding scene before them. Marshall enters the room, having heard the children’s voices. Moments before, he’d been in a guest room, napping off the effects of strong gin cocktails and dreaming of his own “young sisters … all four of them, standing around his bedside, prattling and touching and pulling at his clothes.” He awoke, feeling “hot across his chest and throat, uncomfortably aroused, and briefly confused about his surroundings,” and he followed the playful sounds to the nursery.
Marshall quickly ingratiates himself to the children, especially fifteen year-old Lola, whom he regards as “almost a young woman, poised and imperious … with her bangles and tresses, her painted nails and velvet choker.” He compliments her, remarking, “You’ve jolly good taste in clothes. Those trousers suit you especially well, I think.” Lola is “pleased rather than embarrassed” by the older man’s attention. And for her part, she has already taken note of Marshall: his impressive height, the white suit and leather brogues, the juxtaposition of a “cruel face” and pleasant manner, which she finds attractive. A few moments later Lola returns a compliment, with age-appropriate awkwardness, by blurting out—at the end of a brief conversation about Hamlet—that she likes his shoes. Then she suggests that he must be a singer because he has a “nice voice.”
At this point, near the end of the brief but potent nursery scene, author McEwan inserts a creepy bit of dialogue that serves as a demarcation—separating this chance, almost innocent encounter from the reprehensible act that is to follow. On the heels of Lola’s comment over his shoes and speaking voice, Marshall remarks: “D’you know, you remind me of my favorite sister.” After this comment, readers, fresh from learning about Marshall’s incestuous dream, cannot but conclude that this man is up to something. The wealthy confectioner then produces his latest product: “Army Amo”—a sugar-coated chocolate bar that is destined to be included in the mess kit of every British soldier. Initially, he offers the treat to the first taker; but when the twins quibble, he hands it to Lola, and what follows in the text is a densely-omniscient passage fraught with tension and implied sexuality:
[Lola] took it solemnly, and then for the twins, gave a serves-you-right look. They knew this was so. They could hardly plead for Amo now. They watched her tongue turn green as it curled around the edges of the candy casing. Paul Marshall sat back in the armchair, watching her closely over the steeple he made with his hands in front of his face.
He crossed and uncrossed his legs. Then he took a deep breath. “Bite it,” he said softly. “You’ve got to bite it.”
Just as she tastes the candy bar, the housekeeper calls the twins down for their bath. Laughing now—whether out of amusement or expectation, readers can only speculate—Lola tells her brothers to “run along.” And they do so, leaving their sister alone with her attacker and, as it turns out, her future as well.
Ian McEwan’s choice of using omniscient point-of-view in this gripping scene could have proven problematic in lesser hands. The same can be said for the last-act unmasking of an elderly Briony Tallis as the novel’s meta-fictional author and not-quite-reliable narrator. But, in the end, McEwan pulls them both off admirably; so well, in fact, that he leaves readers with the impression that there was no better way to have done it.