They could either sweep the rug of reason off your feet and take you to another space and time where their protagonist becomes the center of an ever expanding thriving universe (like how an unassuming ten year old from pivet drive realized his parents were the greatest wizards of all time). Such a premise easily lends itself to drama and larger than life characters (like the man who cannot be named). Or they could show you a seemingly insignificant card and make you a witness while a minor accident sways it and makes it fall. And just as it falls, it kisses another card and takes it along and soon they all fall, an entire castle of cards, kissed with death and a twist of fate. And when the whole castle is in shambles, you have no one to blame but a minor insignificant accident - a woodworm that ate the cross. And a satisfied writer who orchestrated it all.
On a midsummer morning, 13-year-old Briony Tallis watches, from a hidden window, her sister take off her clothes before her father's ward and jump into a fountain. An admittedly unusual incident (aggressive foreplay if it were in a hollywood movie) but not an event that by itself could entwine three lives, destroy them beyond belief and dismember a family. But by the time you are through with Part one of Atonement [Atonement : A Novel - by Ian McEwan], you realize that the lives of those caught in that decisive moment have been irrevocably altered and each of their picture perfect plans for future irrepairably destroyed.
The first part of the novel is a master piece. It paints an upper middle class setting in the early part of twentieth century, overlays it with an entire family of interesting characters. Briony Tallis is looking forward for her brother Leon to return and writes a play as a welcome act, that she plans to stage with the help of her cousins. Her sister Cecilia is spending time at home after her years in Oxford and living with them is Robbie turner, who's on his way to study medicine, after an exceptional year of academics. Each chapter is written from the point of view of one character and hence events are revisited and shown in the different perspective. And it's eventually this difference in perspective - subjectivity of realism - that causes the seemingly insignificant card to sway and fall and take with it the entire castle.
The story could have ended there. But the laws of cause and effect wouldn't have been complete. The unlucky wouldn't have been victimised and erring soul wouldn't have repented. The rest of the book binds the ends and records the atonement of the protagonist. Though the text is exquisite, the imagery detailed, these introspective parts fail to capture the magic of the first act. More so because they do little to advance the story - time goes by slowly as the characters trudge through the walk of life reconciling themselves with here and now and try in their own little ways to mend it. But like the author himself writes, "The crystalline present moment is of course a worthy subject in itself ... it allows a writer to show his gifts, delve into mysteries of perception .... However, such writing can become precious when there's no sense of forward movement ... underlying pull of simple narrative".
In the end, time flies. Lives end and plot twists are resolved. The thirteen year old girl reaches the autumn of her life and waits for the witnesses in her prosecution to fade so that she could finally atone for her sin. In a master stroke in the end, the line between the reality as in the book, and those recorded as a work of fiction by the Briorny is forever blurred. And when the final page is flipped, she stares out at the autumn sky and reconciles with herself and her written word.
Atonement is no doubt a work of class. And as with anything with class, it runs the risk of being compared with itself than with its contemporaries. I would have loved to like Atonement a little more. You know that when the last word is said, you don't feel the emptiness that only art could leave you with but in its place a sigh, a shadow of what it could have been. A master piece.