The receptionist’s fingers paused over the keyboard. The heat was making it difficult to think and the din of hundreds of amorous black cicadas wasn’t helping. She wanted to show Mr Farrell how completely he’d misunderstood Ian McEwan’s novel, but at the same time she didn’t want to seem like an arrogant know-it-all. After all, it wasn’t Mr Farrell’s fault. In McEwan’s narrative Briony had written a novel. But — and this was the disturbing part — James Farrell had seen a film. No wonder everyone was so confused. Her fingers found the keys and she began:
Dear Mr Farrell,
I was sorry to hear that you went to see Atonement at the cinema and came away unsatisfied. To be honest, I was surprised to hear that they had made Atonement into a movie. I can’t imagine how this could work Judging from your review, neither could the film’s writers or director.
It seems to me that Atonement is a novel within a novel…
The receptionist paused again. Atonement might well be a story within a story within a story within… but surely this is making things too complicated. Where should she begin to explain — the end perhaps? Just then Dr Troppo walked into the waiting room. As usual there were no patients and the doctor was bored and irritable.
"What are you tap tapping about over there?" asked the doctor. The receptionist looked up from the screen and peered at his bearded, pock-marked face."Just an email to a friend" she said and turned back to look at the screen.
The doctor wasn’t an attractive man, at least not in a physical sense. Even he knew that. But there was something about the way he went about things that made the receptionist squirm in her chair and wonder what that bristly face would feel like if… but now he was gone — back to his office to do whatever it was he did with the door shut and the internet connected. She began again:
You see James, the first part of the book is not Briony remembering what happened in 1935. What they tried to show you in the film was a novel — a novel that the 77 year old Briony tells us she has been writing since 1940. While the elderly novelist assures us that she is telling us exactly what happened (p 369), we know this is not true.
There are clues. In the novel, Briony receives a rejection letter from Cyril Connolly, the editor of Horizon (p 311 – 315). It seems she sent the magazine an earlier draft of the novel we are now reading in the hope that they might publish it (this novel ends on page 349). The letter makes a number of suggestions for improving the book. For example:
A young man a woman by a fountain, who clearly have a great deal of unresolved feeling between them, tussle over a Ming vase and break it (More than one of us here thought Ming rather too priceless to take outdoors? Wouldn’t a Sèvres or Nymphenburg suit your purpose?) …
Evidently, Briony agreed. Check page 24 and you’ll see that she swapped the Ming for a Meissen. And it’s not the only thing that changes. Briony’s novel is filled with events that took place outside of her view. How could she know what Cecilia and Robbie said to each other at the fountain. How could she know that Robbie wrote more than one letter?
But the most obvious reason that Briony can’t simply be remembering is that most of the action takes place in other people’s minds. For example, on page 111 we eavesdrop on Cecilia’s thoughts as she realises that she is in love with Robbie. Private thoughts and emotions are used to give meaning to public actions. Without knowing their thoughts other people’s actions are confusing and mysterious. And that’s how we live our lives — without the aid of an omniscient narrator to tell us what’s really going on.
This is what Briony realises on page 40 when she decides that novels don’t have to have teach a moral lesson:
She need only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive. It wasn’t only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you. And only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they had equal value.
So James, this is why it bothered me when you wrote that Cecilia’s leap into the fountain could have served its purpose in story "just as well without Briony’s having observed it." At least one person has commented that atonement "is really a novel about problems of perception. In the book this point was clear. But I suppose a movie director struggles to deal with point of view in quite the same way…
The receptionist’s fingers paused again. There was something she didn’t quite understand about James’ reaction to the film. Everything she had written so far was obvious to anyone who had read the book and, presumably, the movie. So what was James looking for — a muscular narrator to nudge them in the direction of correct judgment? Did he want a morally satisfying conclusion instead of a lesson on the nature of story telling?
She needed to think and she needed a cigarette. As usual, this was a problem because the doctor had strict rules about smoking. According to Dr Troppo’s rules, he was the only person who was allowed to smoke in the office. So, looking furtively over her shoulder, she fished a Bic lighter and a slightly bent menthol cigarette out of her handbag and pushed open the window. And it was just as she was balancing on one buttock with the Bic in one hand and the Alpine in the other that Dr Troppo burst into the waiting room.
The third floor room was empty. A hot breeze blew through the open window and scattered papers across his receptionist’s grey laminex desk top. The doctor paused to study the furniture. A person’s choice in furniture said a lot about them, he thought.