“There were horrors enough, but it was the unexpected detail that threw him and afterwards would not let him go” (Atonement 191). This is the opening sentence of Part Two of McEwan’s best-selling novel Atonement, the section in which Corporal Robbie Turner’s grueling experiences during the retreat to Dunkirk are recounted. But it also captures my response to McEwan’s treatment of war in the text: despite the convincing depictions of violence and suffering in Parts Two and Three, the latter dealing with Briony Tallis’ wartime service as a nurse in a London hospital, I was frequently struck by “unexpected details” that suggested that McEwan’s agenda in including these scenes went well beyond an urge to depict the Second World War in a historically realistic way. Notwithstanding the author’s careful acknowledgement of historical source material, including soldiers’ and nurses’ reminiscences, the portions of the novel set during the War have distinct elements of literary fantasy and self-conscious construction. These graphic sections are oddly shot through with seemingly extraneous details repeated from Part One, which relates the events of one day on the Tallis estate in 1935, when the adolescent Briony persuades her visiting cousins to perform in a melodrama she has written; the emphasis on theatrical production in the opening underscores the artificially dream-like repetitions that pervade the novel from beginning to end, moving across a number of narrative levels.
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