I’m preparing a sermon on atonement, and brainstorming what comes to mind with that word, one of the first things is the novel by Ian McEwan of the same name, which I read some years ago.
The shorter definition of the word ‘atonement’ is to make “satisfaction or reparation for a wrong or injury; amends”.
Set in 1934, McEwan’s novel, Atonement, follows an upper class family who are enjoying a hot day in their country house whilst being visited by their friends. The oldest daughter, Cecilia is back from Cambridge for the summer, as is Robbie, her childhood friend and the son of one of the estate workers. There is an attraction between them which grows on this summers day. Thirteen year old Briony is trying to prepare a short drama to perform with her cousins… and is feeling decidedly left out by the attention that Cecilia and her shortly-to-return older brother are getting.
That day Briony witnesses a number of things which she was not meant to see, and which she was not able to understand. First, she reads a letter from Robbie to Cecilia declaring his love – in a very brusque fashion. Then, she stumbles into the library interrupting a passionate embrace between them and thinks it may be some sort of attack. Finally, in the dim light of dusk in the garden, she sees the part of a sexual assault on her fifteen year old cousin, Lola. She did not get a good view of the perpetrator, but in her mind it had to be Robbie. That is the story she becomes convinced of and sticks to. Robbie is arrested and taken away, and Cecilia doesn’t talk to her sister again. This wrong conclusion, which Briony was only too happy to jump to, has dramatic implications for Robbie and Cecilia’s lives.
The book then jumps forward a number of years to narrate Robbie in the retreat from Dunkirk, and then further again when Briony has trained as a nurse and is looking after returning wounded soldiers – spurred on to do this by the memory of what she had done. Working for good can surely undo the mistakes of the past. This third section of the novel is dominated by Briony attempting to make amends for the hardship she has caused to Cecilia and Robbie. It is quite simply an attempt at self-atonement for her thirteen-year-old mistake. The novel ends with peace – Robbie and Cecilia on the banks of the Thames, war and confusion behind them, looking towards a happier future.
The twist in the tale comes in the epilogue when the story leaps forward to 1999. A now aged Briony is just about to publish her novel (memoirs?), with the Robbie and Cecilia story dominating. What he have been reading until that point is, in fact, not Ian McEwan’s prose, but the story written by one of his creations, Briony Tallis. Robbie did not survive the retreat at Dunkirk, succumbing to fever on the beach. Cecilia died in a bomb shelter in London during an air raid. Briony’s novel is the only way she, who has been battling guilt all her life, can come to atone for her mistake and give Robbie and Cecilia a happy ending.
“how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity of higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.”
The irony is that there was no atonement either in the fictional story that Briony dreamed up, or in the real post-epilogue twist of McEwan. There can be no atonement as the only ones capable of giving it to Briony are dead, and she knows it. The atheist McEwan knows it too.