Atonement by Ian McEwan (Random House, New York, 2001; $14.95 paper; 351 pages)
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (The Berkley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Group, New York, 2003; $14.00 paper; 372 pages)
"The only conceivable solution would be for the past never to have happened." Atonement by Ian McEwan
"There is a way to be good again." The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
In these two powerful and incredibly well crafted novels, the questions of forgiveness and atonement are addressed in a dramatic way, leading the reader to different considerations, if not entirely different conclusions. What has been done cannot be undone, but is there a way to atone, to do a good deed to offset a bad? What has to happen inside of a person to either forgive or be forgiven? Who is the act of atonement for? And can we change who we fundamentally are? Interestingly, both stories begin with protagonists who are the same age, 12 or 13, when the "crime" is committed, and both later become writers. It's a time of life many of us would like to rewrite.
Ian McEwan's Atonement is masterful in its complexity, not only in the unfolding of the story but also in the depth of the characters. In the initial part of the novel, McEwan takes us through a very long day and night of the Tallis family. We, as readers, are privy to the longings and desperate actions of the characters, and it is sometimes with dispassioned understanding and sometimes with shock that we watch the drama unfold. We first meet Briony as she is preparing to stage a play she has written for her adored older brother's homecoming. She is a child of great imagination but also "one of those children possessed by the desire to have the world just so." (p. 4) It is this combination that leads her to commit an act that changes the course of many lives. When events don't go as she planned, we watch her transition from a thwarted little girl to a more potent force. "She would simply wait on the bridge, calm and obstinate, until events, real events, not her own fantasies, rose to her challenge, and dispelled her insignificance." (p.72) What follows shatters many lives and leaves Briony with the lifelong challenge of atonement. Through his fine weaving of this tale, McEwan challenges our need for clear-cut answers and reminds us that atonement is a process, not an act. "It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all." (p. 351)
Told to us through the eyes of Amir, the son of a prominent man in pre-Taliban Afghanistan, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, paints a vivid mural of loyalty, betrayal, and redemption. Amir and Hassan, the son of the family servant, were playmates and friends, with it always being clear that Amir had a higher social standing. Hassan, in his goodness, always accepted this and cherished the time he could spend with Amir, whether it was listening to him read as they sat together under the pomegranate tree or running for the victory kite that would bring Amir honor. But seeing his father as larger than life and longing for his approval. Amir betrays his loyal and loving friend and is left for many years to struggle on his own with his cowardice and shame. "I understood the nature of my new curse. I was going to get away with it." (p. 86) Through Hosseini's brilliant storytelling, we go on a roller-coaster ride, along with Amir, who is given an opportunity to redeem himself, and in that process, confronts his history and faces his demons.
Each of these novels evoked a different response in me. I wept as I finished The Kite Runner, and I sat in awe-struck reflection at the end of Atonement. The story of the kite runner is more dramatic in its action and clearer in its conclusion. As his witnesses, we, the readers, have traveled the road with Amir. If there is hope for him, maybe there can be hope for us as well. In Atonement, we end with more question than conclusion. Briony writes and rewrites her story, partly for the future record, but mostly for herself. It is all that she can do. But who decides when atonement has been achieved? It seems that it is in the eyes of the one attempting to make the reparation. Certainly, there may be another person or force involved: the aggrieved, a counselor (friend, therapist, priest), or God. The catharsis of strong emotion, as in The Kite Runner, sometimes helps us to know. But it often occurs more quietly, and only we can know when we have done enough to be able to forgive ourselves.
Barbara Nama practices in Atlanta, Georgia.