“Superb”… “magnificent”… “The best thing he has ever written” — the kinds of things that are said about almost every book that is published these days, from James Patterson to Mo Willems. Yet when I heard these same things said about Atonement by Ian McEwan, I somehow thought such praise was well-deserved.
Silly me.
The overall narrative is fairly light. There is the tale of Robbie and Cecilia (two star-crossed lovers), and the personal struggle of Briony, and then a handful of plot-driven characters in the background. The story spans five years or seventy, depending on whether you include the final section.

The dense part of the story takes place in Part One, and most of that weight is due to the shifting narrative voice. In comparison, Part Two and Part Three are relatively breezy, each with a single voice and little introspection.
What is unconvincing about the narrative is the titular atonement that is supposed to take place. Part One goes to elaborate ends to set up Briony’s shocking betrayal, but the story does not dwell on the immediate repercussions. Instead we move ahead five years to Part Two, where Robbie finds himself stuck in A Farewell to Arms set in Dunkirk. Aside from a handful of grim details, the whole section isn’t much more than filler.
Then in Part Three, instead of witnessing a tortured and overwrought Briony struggling with guilt and yearning for atonement, we instead find a confident and unexpectely competent nurse. Of course before she became a nurse she spent a few weeks alone with a typewriter, hoping to turn her personal agony into a book contract. Again there is plenty of filler (including some mundane details which led to accusations of plagiarism by the author), but no real psychological development of the character.
The cardboard construction of Part Two and Part Three is explained in the final section, where we learn that after a lengthy career as a sucessful novelist (thank goodness!), Briony has written the preceeding story as a form of — surprize, surprize — atonement for her long dead crime. Is this really atonement, or simply wish fulfillment? There is no way to know, because the 70 year-old Briony has no more personality than the 13 year-old. In a facile gesture, McEwan tries to focus our sympathy by afflicting Briony with vascular dementia. The gesture is an utter failure, of course, because the character is a total void between 1940 and 1999.
But here is what confuses me the most about this novel: if Briony is the fictional author of the story, and she grew up under the influence of early 20th century fiction, why is she such a clumsy writer?
Here’s a sample from page 123. The narrative skips between several tenses, and in this section Robbie is reflecting on events that occurred earlier in the evening:

Half an hour earlier there had been no hope at all. After Briony had disappeared into the house with his letter, he kept on walking, agonizing about turning back. Even when he reached the front door, his mind was not made up, and he loitered several minutes under the porch lamp and its single faithful moth, trying to choose the less disastrous of two poor options.

Briony “had disappeared” while Robbie “kept on walking”. He then “reached” the door, but shouldn’t that be “had reached”? Or maybe we should drop the whole past perfect progressive tense and let “Half an hour earlier” move the narrative setting into the simple past? If only an editor had struck out the second “had” I would have been happy.
Where is Robbie, anyway? He is at the front door, but is he going in or going out? And why does the moth have two options?
It isn’t Briony who has penned these broken constructions, but McEwan. Here is another passage, from the opening of Part Two:

There were horrors enough, but it was the unexpected detail that threw him and afterward would not let him go. When they reached the level crossing, after a three-mile walk along a narrow road, he saw the path he was looking for meandering off to the right, then dipping and rising toward a copse that covered a low hill to the northwest. They stopped so that he could consult the map. But it wasn’t where he thought it should be. It wasn’t in his pocket or tucked into his belt. Had he dropped it, or put it down at the last stop?

In a passage that attempts to convey the horror of unexpected detail, the reader is clobbered with a clunky passive verb, then held suspended by an ambiguous antecedent.
The “horror”, appearing a few paragraphs later, is a severed leg in a tree.

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