ATONEMENT

By Ian McEwan

Doubleday. 351 pp. $26

In just under a quarter-century, Ian McEwan has published nine novels and two short-story collections. The progress of his work certainly can be measured by sensitive literary calipers, but in truth a good old-fashioned thermometer would work just fine. Talk about global warming! McEwan is under the influence of what can only be called a heat wave. From his first novel, The Cement Garden -- impressive and deservedly praised, but a chilly tour de force -- his work has grown ever more passionate, ever richer in emotion and plain human sympathy. All along he has known how to make the reader think and imagine; now he knows how to break your heart.

So here we have Atonement. Where to begin? Whether it is indeed a masterpiece -- as upon first reading I am inclined to think it is -- can be determined only as time permits it to take its place in the vast body of English literature. Certainly it is the finest book yet by a writer of prodigious skills and, at this point in his career, equally prodigious accomplishment. It confirms me in the belief that there is no one now writing fiction in the English language who surpasses McEwan, and perhaps no one who equals him. It tells us -- if his previous three or four books did not already do so -- that an extraordinary literary career is in progress, and leaves us to await with high expectations books as yet unwritten.

Atonement is at once incredibly lucid and forbiddingly dense. Every sentence is pellucid, yet every sentence is fraught with weight. As surely as if he had tied a chain around your waist and wound it through a powerful winch, McEwan pulls you toward the novel's climax and denouement, but there can be no rushing to get there. By way of illustration consider the following paragraph, chosen entirely at random. Robbie Turner is writing a letter to Cecilia Tallis, only minutes after an incident in the garden of the Tallis family's country estate outside London, a place of "timeless, unchanging calm" spoiled only by "the ugliness of the Tallis home -- barely forty years old, bright orange brick, squat, lead-paneled baronial Gothic." It is an incident that will -- in a matter of hours -- forever transform both of them:

"How thin it looked, this self-protective levity. He was like a man with advanced TB pretending to have a cold. He flicked the return lever twice and re-wrote: 'It's hardly an excuse, I know, but lately I seem to be awfully light-headed around you. What was I doing, walking barefoot into your house? And have I ever snapped off the rim of an antique vase before?' He rested his hands on the keys while he confronted the urge to type her name again. 'Cee, I don't think I can blame the heat!' Now jokiness had made way for melodrama, or plaintiveness. The rhetorical questions had a clammy air; the exclamation mark was the first resort of those who shout to make themselves clearer. He forgave this punctuation only in his mother's letters where a row of five indicated a jolly good joke. He turned the drum and typed an 'x.' 'Cecilia, I don't think I can blame the heat.' Now the humor was removed, and an element of self-pity had crept in. The exclamation mark would have to be reinstated. Volume was obviously not its only business."

The remainder of this review -- if not a monograph, or a small book -- could be turned over to an analysis of that paragraph, written as it is with such manifest patience and care, thick as it is with meaning. Instead, move on to the next paragraph, in which Robbie allows his imagination to flourish. He writes another draft of the letter, and in a moment types "before he could stop himself" two sentences that he could never speak, or write, to Cecilia. He pulls the draft out of the typewriter and writes, in longhand, on another sheet of paper, words it is permissible for him to say. The letter is delivered to her: the wrong letter.

Or is it? Words that in 1935 could not be uttered in a genteel English household -- could not even be thought -- have a transformative effect, and scarcely the one Robbie had feared. Two young people fresh out of Cambridge -- the scholarship boy, "only son of a humble cleaning lady," and the elder daughter of the squire for whom his mother works -- find themselves in each other's arms. In the darkness of her father's library, they kiss:

"Daringly, they touched the tips of their tongues, and it was then she made the falling, sighing sound which, he realized later, marked a transformation. . . . The son of Grace and Ernest Turner, the daughter of Emily and Jack Tallis, the childhood friends, the university acquaintances, in a state of expansive, tranquil joy, confronted the momentous change they had achieved. . . . Finally he spoke the three simple words that no amount of bad art or bad faith can ever quite cheapen. She repeated them, with exactly the same slight emphasis on the second word, as though she were the one to say them first. He had no religious belief, but it was impossible not to think of an invisible presence or witness in the room, and that these words spoken aloud were like signatures on an unseen contract."

Ahead of them lies happiness neither had ever fully imagined, yet in a few moments all is taken away. An almost unimaginable betrayal is committed by Cecilia's 13-year-old sister, Briony, a child given to what Cecilia calls "wretched fantasies," an "indignant little girl" who "inhabited an ill-defined space between the nursery and adult worlds which she crossed and re-crossed unpredictably," who "possessed a strange mind and a facility with words." She is a storyteller -- a liar -- and the terrible story she now tells, every word of it a lie, does irreparable harm to Cecilia and Robbie. It separates them for years, then sends them in opposite directions: Robbie to the British Expeditionary Force in northern France and its evacuation to Dunkirk, Cecilia to London and a new life as a nurse, "cut . . . off from her family" by her own adamant choice.

They are apart yet together. "I'm not going to go away," she tells him in the first letter he receives in France. "I'll wait for you. Come back." She tells him this in every letter she writes. The hope of seeing her again, of two weeks with her in a country cottage, is what sustains him through the awful retreat to the English Channel, even when his exhaustion and pain are so great that his mind is numb: "His business was to survive, though he had forgotten why." His memory of her promise to wait is "like a sacred site" to which he returns over and over again.

Meantime there is Briony. Rather than follow Cecilia to Cambridge, she follows her into nursing, into a kind of penance, "a life of strictures, rules, obedience, housework, and a constant fear of disapproval." Cecilia resolutely shuns her, but Briony writes to her sister anyway, seeking a meeting. "She's beginning to get the full grasp of what she did and what she meant," Cecilia writes in a letter to Robbie. "I think she wants to recant." Yet Briony knows the truth: "Whatever skivvying or humble nursing she did, and however well or hard she did it, whatever illumination in tutorial she had relinquished, or lifetime moment on a college lawn, she would never undo the damage. She was unforgivable."

She is a dreadful little monster -- self-deluding, evasive, fanciful, selfish -- yet McEwan portrays her with sympathy and something quite like love. She is, as he is, a writer, a teller of stories. "Wasn't writing a kind of soaring," Briony asks, "an achievable form of flight, of fancy, of the imagination?" -- and we know that McEwan is asking the same question himself, seeing Briony in himself. This is not literary game-playing but a matter of the deepest urgency, an inquiry into the very heart of the writer and his, or her, imagination. There is also a bold statement, made by McEwan through the imagined voice of the great critic and editor Cyril Connolly. Briony, enraptured by modernism -- "The age of clear answers was over. So was the age of characters and plots. . . . They were quaint devices that belonged to the 19th century" -- writes a story based on the experience of Robbie and Cecilia and sends it to Horizon. Its editor, "CC," replies:

"We found 'Two Figures by a Fountain' arresting enough to read with dedicated attention. . . . However, we wondered whether it owed a little too much to the techniques of Mrs. Woolf. . . . Put the other way round, our attention would have been held even more effectively had there been an underlying pull of simple narrative. Development is required. . . . Your most sophisticated readers might well be up on the latest Bergsonian theories of consciousness, but I'm sure they retain a childlike desire to be told a story, to be held in suspension, to know what happens."

Indeed they do, and this is precisely what McEwan has done for them in Atonement: told a story that reaffirms in every syllable our need for storytelling and its own transformative power. It is a story about class and war and crime and betrayal and penance, about all of which McEwan writes with abundant authority, and it is -- as we realize toward the end -- in and of itself an act of atonement, but above all it is a love story. It has passages so powerful and beautiful they make the heart race -- a long paragraph that begins on page 127 is the one that persists most tenaciously in my own memory -- at the same time that they remind us that nothing except love itself touches us so intimately and forcibly as a good story told exactly right. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.