CBR11bingo: History/Schmistory (historical fiction)
While having lunch with a friend recently, we started talking about books and he mentioned that he doesn’t have any use for novels that are “about writing.” On reflection, I realized I am often quite taken with novels that could be classified as metafiction (The Magpie Murders, The Word is Murder/The Sentence is Death, and, going all the way back to CBR V, The Tragedy of Arthur). So it’s no surprise that, while I was slow to get on board with Atonement (during the first 100 pages, I even considered quitting), by the end it had won me over with its layers of reality.
Protagonist Briony Tallis is 13 years old, melodramatic, and an aspiring writer. Briony witnesses several incidents between her sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, the son of the Tallis’s housekeeper. Being too young to grasp sexual tension between consenting adults and possessing an overactive imagination, Briony casts Robbie as a predator, calling him a “maniac.” When she later witnesses a man of Robbie’s build raping her 15-year old cousin Lola, Briony convinces herself it was Robbie and identifies him to the police. Robbie goes to prison and later to war, while Cecilia rejects her family and dedicates her life to nursing. As years pass, Briony comes to understand her crime: falsely accusing Robbie tore him away from Cecilia and shattered both of their lives. Briony’s efforts to come to terms with her mistake and find a way to atone for it comprise the foundation for this novel.
No doubt many readers will hate Briony, not just for her unforgivable mistake, but also for being a smug, prim, annoying child. She is indeed all of those things, but I didn’t have it in me to feel hatred. I felt very little towards her, in fact, but I came to love the journey of doubt and uncertainty, of trying to see the truth against shifting reality. In a passage that demonstrates both how deadly false perceptions can be and how quickly an accusation can escalate, McEwan describes, from Robbie’s perspective, a group of soldiers stranded at Dunkirk turning on a member of the RAF. “‘So where’s the RAF?’ A hand whipped out and slapped the man’s face, knocking his glasses to the floor. The sound of the blow was precise as a whip crack. It was a signal for a new stage, a new level of engagement. . . . They hated him and he deserved everything that was coming his way. He was answerable for the Luftwaffe’s freedom of the skies, for every Stuka attack, every dead friend.” In reality, the RAF was doing everything they could to fend off the Luftwaffe, but to the terrified men waiting on France’s shore, the RAF’s absence translated as betrayal. The original provocateur’s “Where’s the RAF?” sets in motion a near-fatal mob, as Briony’s simple “I saw him” initiates Robbie’s destruction.
In the first part of this novel, the reader is invited to play the “if only” game. If only so many things hadn’t happened, the central tragedy could have been avoided. If only Briony’s play rehearsal had gone better, she wouldn’t have been looking out the window and seen the first bewildering encounter between Cecilia and Robbie. If only Robbie hadn’t mistakenly sent Cecilia a crude note (an overly contrived plot device, in my opinion), Briony wouldn’t have assumed he was a sex maniac. If only Cecilia and Robbie had locked the library door. If only the twins hadn’t gone missing. If only Briony hadn’t seen her mother through the house window and turned back, leading her to witness her cousin’s attack. And yet the reader has to make a conscious effort to travel to the most obvious if only: if only Paul Marshall hadn’t attacked Lola. Marshall is so insulated from justice that the reader barely registers him as the true cause of the tragedy. Instead, we blame Briony first and foremost, which is pretty messed up. To her credit, Briony accepts equal responsibility with Marshall for the tragedy and in the final chapter, she contemplates, “Perhaps he’s spent a lifetime making amends. Or perhaps he just swept onward without a thought, to live the life that was always his.”
I remember not being overly impressed with the Academy Award-nominated film that came out in 2007 (Benedict Cumberbatch’s creepy performance aside). The blurred lines of reality in storytelling is better served by the written word. As Briony considers at the beginning of the novel, “A story was direct and simple, allowing nothing to come between herself and her reader—no intermediaries with their private ambitions or incompetence, no pressures of time, no limits on resources. . . . By means of inking symbols onto a page, she was able to send thoughts and feelings from her mind to her reader’s. It was a magical process, so commonplace that no one stopped to wonder at it.”