McEwan has produced soul-shaking stuff in the past. Who can forget the devastating accusation in Atonement or the perverse violence of The Comfort of Strangers? Children have always played a role in his fiction. They grow up too quickly in McEwan’s morally problematic world. at times their own dark impulses cause their innocent skins to shed. Buried somewhere in The Children Act is a decent short story that might have contributed to this theme.
McEwan has traveled down this road before, in Enduring Love, a disturbing story of one man’s erotomaniacal obsession for another. But while that work was thrilling and tense, the denouement of The Children Act is anticlimactic.
Ian McEwan’s new novel opens with an allusion to Bleak House, Dickens’ triple-decker indictment of British jurisprudence. This bewigged legal system comes under tighter scrutiny in The Children Act, a disappointing look at the fateful consequences of a bioethics case. The chief selling point is its merciful brevity.
Although I agree with Finney's observations about these implications of fiction and their application within Atonement, his reading does not account for the fact that Briony is herself a fictional construct. The "reality" that she [End Page 88] renders as fiction is not a material reality; it exists only within the pages of the novel. McEwan's move to reveal Briony as the author makes transparent another narrative aspect that the novel explores: the relationship of the reader to the text. For if Atonement is a novel concerned with the "making of fiction," it is also a novel concerned with the reading of fiction, as well as the reading of experience. Briony's crime has been widely read as one of literary imagination, but it is also one of poor reading comprehension. Nevertheless, the adult Briony has learned the value of reading, and she constructs a narrative that continually reminds the reader of this crucial role. In this sense, McEwan positions Atonement against earlier narrative models that were also concerned with the author-reader relationship, specifically the 18th-century novel and the modernist novel. In his critique of the reader's role, McEwan presents an implicit argument about the ethical responsibility for readers of contemporary fiction. Readers hold the final power of interpretation, judgment, and atonement; to meet these aims, they must maintain a stance toward the text that involves both critical assessment and empathetic identification. As we will see, both tasks prove necessary for readers of Atonement.
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British author Ian McEwan is the author of many fine novels.
Much of the critical response to Ian McEwan's novel Atonement has focused on the metafictional elements of the work's narrative structure, as well as Briony Tallis's revelation in the final pages that she in fact authored the text. Critics have asked whether the novel earns this epilogue or whether it is an abrupt rendering of a straightforward realist narrative into what David Lodge has called a "postmodernist metafiction" (87). Brian Finney counters readers who find that the ending "inappropriately resorts to a modish self-referentiality" (69) by asserting that the text's narrative structure actually supports Briony's final admission from the first page. He argues, "I read this novel as a work of fiction that is from beginning to end concerned with the making of fiction" (69). Of Briony's engagement with fiction, he states: