A portrait of the artist as a young terror

Ian McEwan won the Booker Prize in 1998 for a deadly little masterpiece called "Amsterdam." What seemed like a triumph of literary acumen then was, in fact, just a prelude to a far broader, more ambitious novel that captures the brutality of love and war and guilt. The extraordinary range of "Atonement" suggests that there's nothing McEwan can't do.

The story opens on a sweltering day at the ugly Gothic estate of Emily Tallis and her much-absent husband. McEwan rotates through the perspectives of several residents and guests during a ludicrous and ultimately disastrous weekend, turning subtly through a kind of mock tribute to Jane Austen, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf.

Thirteen-year-old Briony has composed a romantic play, in verse, for her older brother "to celebrate his return, provoke his admiration and guide him away from his careless succession of girlfriends, towards the right form of wife, the one who would persuade him to return to the countryside, the one who would sweetly request Briony's services as a bridesmaid." That seems a rather tall order for any play - in verse or otherwise - but Briony "was one of those children possessed by a desire to have the world just so."

Unfortunately, her three cousins, visiting while their scandalous mother has an affair in Paris, don't see the importance of helping Briony shape reality to her will. While pouting during a break from a particularly bad rehearsal, Briony watches her older sister and a young man in the yard arguing in front of the fountain.

Cecilia and Robbie appear to be tussling over an old vase. When it drops into the water, her sister strips to her underwear, retrieves the pieces, and marches away. The scene makes no sense to Briony at first, but it quickly provides the material for a new melodrama starring her.

Meanwhile, Robbie retreats to his room and realizes in frustration that he must no longer conceal his love for Cecilia, regardless of their recent argument by the fountain. After writing several drafts, including a rather crude sexual fantasy, he composes a confession of his love, rushes to the house, and asks Briony to deliver it to her sister.

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."

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 the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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