Now—after reading On Chesil Beach and Atonement in less than 24 hours— I know why everyone is reading Ian McEwan (and why McEwan is on Entertainment Weekly's list of New Classics). He is brilliant.
The writing in Atonement isn't as sparse and conservative as it is in On Chesil Beach. This is a more complicated novel in terms of characters and twists and turns. There is more to keep up with in this novel that spans several decades, but you won't feel as if you're working to keep up.
The most basic storyline itself is a terrifying one: a precocious 13-year-old girl, Briony, creates her own truth about an event, and everyone believes her. With her gigantic lie, she alters the lives of her whole family. Does she have the courage to take back what she said?
The novel begins with Briony at 13 and ends with her in her 70s. Through much of the novel I longed to slap Briony across her silly, smug face. But the possibility of a lie being told and stuck to: terrifyingly true. How many times as children did we tell a little lie and have to remember it and stick to it later? Most of our lies were probably "innocent" cover-ups ("I'm not the one who broke the glass!"), but even a little lie is just a step away from one that is big enough to alter our world.
As I said in my review of On Chesil Beach, McEwan is a master storyteller and a true craftsman. I will be reading through the rest of his novels soon.