I recently finished listening to Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement as I drove to and from several long distance meetings. Over the miles I was drawn into what I thought was merely a novel about a budding writer, Briony Tallis, who is learning to see life as a story through her writing of plays and novels. With this perspective, she wants to more actively construct the storyline of her life. [Spoiler Alert. The rest of this post contains descriptions that reveal the novel’s ending.]
In the span of one day she attempts to involve her cousins in a new play, without much success and happens upon a moment of sexual tension between her older sister, Cecelia, and a childhood friend, Robbie Turner. Her way of understanding these and other actions of the day evolve into a narrative in which she is the protagonist who steps in to right situations. This seems to be a harmless method of growing up until one of the constructions becomes a crime – claiming that she saw Robbie leave the scene of her cousin’s assault.
Continually I’m fascinated with the idea of story and how we interact with the narratives surrounding us. How much agency do any of us really have to change the stories before us? Whatever the real answer, the possibility of change gives me hope. I don’t feel weighted down with the oughts in life when the possibility of tweaking my story is before me. I can choose to reorient my life – take more time to write, create a strategy for ministry, plan vacations, and reach out to friends. This is all part of writing a living story. We can even seek to right wrongs by seeking forgiveness for the ‘crimes’ we enact, as Briony attempts.
In the novel, all seems to progress toward a redemptive ending as the story moves forward. Briony eventually seeks to atone for the actions that led to Robbie ending up in prison and being injured while fighting in France at the beginning of World World II. The writing of a novel explaining her part in the original crime is part of this attempt to make amends. In hearing the retelling of this story, I knew I was in the midst of a powerful time of atonement. While training to serve as a nurse, Briony takes a day off to visit her estranged sister and finally take responsibility for what she did. Unexpectedly, Robbie is with Cecelia, just having returned from France. Briony can now ask for forgiveness from both. She leaves the pair, if not with unconditional forgiveness, at least with a list of actions that will move towards making amends. It seems she has successfully rewritten her story.
At this point in my listening I was thinking of stories I needed to attempt to rewrite. Perhaps reconnecting with lost friends or reaching out to family members. Whatever the situation, it could be possible to make corrections.
However, as the novel moves to the present day something doesn’t feel right. Briony is at a birthday celebration. But the lovers, where are they? It turns out the the novel she had written, though supposedly based on finally telling the truth, is more about the truth she would have liked to have shared. Yes, she does fully concede her role in the crime. However, the lovers were never reunited, both were killed in the war – one the result of a battle wound and the other of a bombing. The actual story could not be rewritten, atonement never truly made. A deep chasm was and would always be present.
I was on my way home from work when the story reached this point and even when I was in the driveway I could not turn off the car. What? That story of reunion was made up? It wouldn’t be possible to right the wrong? Although this story of many layers was fiction, it rang truer than I would have liked. I started thinking about the story lines on which I am working. Are there any I need to rewrite before it’s too late? What chasms in my own stories will never be closed? My optimism for loose ends finally being worked out one day was appropriately crushed. It was clear that I even as I work to re-write stories, atonement will often have to come from outside of my efforts.