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.