McEwan is a master of creating layer upon layer of exquisite detail that lays the groundwork for psychologically compelling characters and provides an undertone of menace in a narrative that turns dramatically on a single act. This is precisely what he does in Enduring Love and Saturday and so brilliantly in Atonement.
Set in the country side outside of London in 1935, this is the story of a young girl’s act of vengeance that wreaks havoc on the lives of those around her. As the much younger sibling of Leo and Cecelia, and with a mother who is absent through illness and a workaholic father, Briony is left mostly to her own devices. She escapes her loneliness through fiction where she can create the perfect world she longs for.
When Briony intercepts a sexually explosive letter to her sister from Robbie the char woman’s son, her selfish actions have dire consequences. But like any great fictional imbroglio she takes the letter that is intended for his eyes only. His raw sexuality affronts her childish notions of love and also makes her realize that he loves her sister and not her. Partly out of pique and partly out of love for her sister she convinces herself that she must save her sister from such a monster. The lie she goes on to tell bears enormous consequences not only for Cecelia and Robbie and but for their families as well.
Briony ultimately faces the consequences of her actions but not without realizing that life is much messier than the fiction that she creates. Later in life she seeks to atone for her actions by rewriting the story of her sister’s and Robbie’s devastated lives. Byy allowing the reader to believe that a happy ending finally brought the star crossed lovers together she resurrects her romantic notion of love and atones for her devastating behaviour. McEwan traverses the themes of fiction and life, childhood and loss of innocence, love and war beautifully, creating an elegiac, tale of love and loss.