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Classic book review: Atonement

The extraordinary range of "Atonement" suggests that there's nothing Ian McEwan can't do.

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In her new role as Cecilia's defender, Briony immediately opens the letter and finds the obscene fantasy that Robbie has mistakenly mailed - oops! "Something irreducibly human, or male, threatened the order of their household," McEwan writes, "and Briony knew that unless she helped her sister, they would all suffer."

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At the coming-home party for her brother that evening, she keeps a close eye on the "sex maniac," but Robbie and Cecilia are too caught up in their new romance to notice or care. McEwan's knowledge of the inner workings of these characters is so piercing that you can't help feeling sorry for them; only God should have such intimate knowledge.

The tragicomedy of Briony's crisis peaks when two children disrupt the party by running away from home. For the adults, the dark search is made anxious by their proximity to the lake; for Briony, who knows what sort of fiend is among them, the situation couldn't be more alarming. Gripped with terror but driven on by constant attention to the heroic story she's composing, she creeps out to the island temple - an artificial temple built on an artificial island - and there interrupts a rape in progress.

She finds her 16-year-old cousin disheveled and distraught. The rapist, surely Robbie, has darted into the night.

"I saw him," she announces, creating in that moment a degree of certainty her story needs to reach its climax. And despite the darkness, despite her cousin's lack of confirmation, despite a sprinkling of contradictory details, her narrative calcifies into rock-hard certainty that smashes several lives.

Three shorter, dead serious parts follow.

The first is a terrifying short story about Robbie, now serving in the British Army, fleeing the German invasion of France. The second describes Briony's grisly experience at a London hospital as soldiers arrive for treatment.

And the last part jumps ahead to 1999, for an epilogue that brilliantly complicates the events and the morality of what happened that night at the Tallis estate. These disparate parts, alike only in their stunning effectiveness, combine to produce a profound exploration of the nature of guilt and the difficulty of absolution.

As she clears the fog of adolescence, Briony must confront the destructive power of her fiction, even while pursuing its redemptive possibilities. We're each of us, McEwan suggests, composing our lives. And in those stories we can illustrate "the simple truth that other people are as real as us ... and have an equal value."

Or we can ignore that moral and pay the consequences. The role of author entices us with the chance for endless revision, but assuming that role precludes the possibility of atonement with an Author outside ourselves.

Such is the harrowing paradox captured in this comic, moving, ultimately unsettling novel.

Ron Charles is a former Monitor book editor.

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