If secrets constitute us as individuals (as Briony Tallis hopes is the case), and secrets are crucial to storytelling, then it must be storytelling itself that expels us from Eden. Storytelling is corrupt and corrupting. This has been one of the themes McEwan has pondered in recent years, and it is hard not to conclude that in so doing he is somewhat anxiously arraigning his own propensity for narrative manipulation. Graham Greene, another enormously successful and artistically serious novelist, did something similar in The End of the Affair, using the book, in part, to reflect on storytelling and the ‘guiltiness’ of highly professionalised storytelling. Bendrix, the book’s first narrator, is a successful novelist praised for his impeccable craftsmanship. The End of the Affair ends with a series of miracles: a book belonging to Bendrix’s mistress, Sarah, has healing powers; a man’s scarred face is suddenly restored; a stained-glass window in a house that is bombed is the only window not shattered. Greene the Catholic asks, as McEwan does in Black Dogs for instance, when is a coincidence just a coincidence and when is it a narrative miracle?
Plenty of readers are irritated by this conjuring trick. But if Briony made it all up, so did we. If the desperation of both her guilt and her wish fulfilment stirs us, it is because, by way of McEwan’s delayed revelation, by way of his narrative secret, we have ourselves conspired in Briony’s wish fulfilment, not just content but eager to believe, until the very last moment, that Cecilia and Robbie did not actually die. We wanted them to be alive, and the knowledge that we too wanted a ‘happy ending’ brings on a kind of atonement for the banality of our own literary impulses. Which is why the ending provokes interestingly divergent responses: it alienates some conventional readers, who dislike what they feel to be a trick, but it alienates some sophisticated readers, who also dislike what they feel to be a trick; and I suspect that the estrangement of both camps has to do with their guilt at having been moved by the novel’s conventional romantic power. It shouldn’t be possible, but Atonement wants to have it both ways, and succeeds in having it both ways. It is Ian McEwan’s best book because it successfully prosecutes and defends – as inevitable – the very impulses that make McEwan such a compellingly manipulative novelist; and because it makes us willing, guilty, and finally self-conscious co-conspirators in that machinery of manipulation.
Haven't entirely processed this one, but I think the underlying contention is interesting. We respond to some things and not others because we want to, or find some things compelling because they say something about who we are as people. The End of the Affair works, I think, if you're the sort of person who believes in the possibility of radical change in the way the book describes. But perhaps we respond to what we perceive as 'real' not because it reflects reality but it reflects our perception?