This is how I know I have read a masterpiece: I walked out of my apartment, and my neighborhood seemed far less real than the world of Robbie Turner, Cecilia Tallis and Brioni Tallis. I loved them, and feared for them more fiercely than I had for anyone real. The love and fear came from an imagination so thoroughly awakened that its previous life had the quality of a dream.
I think Alan Hollinghurst is a greater prose stylist than McEwan. The Line of Beauty has passages of such lyrical, yes, beauty, exquisite passages that Atonement could not match. McEwan sometimes resorts to commonplaces. Sunlight is described as a "parallelogram," a "wedge," and then "geometry."
But McEwan is not after beauty per se; his prose probes and delineates the subtle psychology of his characters. Many reviewers compare him rightly to Jane Austen for his strength in this regard, though McEwan is, I think, fundamentally non-ironic. Who said that there are only three literary modes: ironic, tragic and lyrical? McEwan's vision is tragic.
He is also more ingenious in his plot construction and narrative methods than Hollinghurst. Atonement is, at least, in part, a story about story-telling. Part 1 tells of the same fateful day from four different perspectives, all four using the stream-of-consciousness technique. But that only sets up McEwan's quarrel with literary modernism. According to him, the modernist novel, in its obsession with the eddies of consciousness, has neglected the pleasure and importance of narrative. Emily Tallis, wife and mother in the Tallis household, is a Woolfian figure. She is like Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, except that Emily in Atonement is depicted as an ineffectual character.
Part 2, with its realist description of Robbie's trudge to Dunkirk to be evacuated with the rest of the British Expeditionary Force, is a tribute to the Victorian novel. It is Dickensian and Eliotian in many places. And then Part 3 provides the postmodernist twist. I can't explain it without giving away the surprise. The twist does not only engage in the great conversation about the powers and the ethics of novel-writing, it also deepens my feelings for the characters involved.
Where my attention wavered was in Part 2. Yes, it is connected logically to the plot, and suggestively to the theme of guilt and atonement, but I can't help feeling that it is not integrated with the rest of the novel. With its detailed documentation of the horrors of military retreat, it feels too much like a set-piece. Dickens would write set-pieces but they are usually short, not longer than one chapter, one short number in the magazine serialization. McEwan's set-piece goes on for the whole of Part 2, a total of 70 pages. It makes too loud a claim for Social Importance.
But it has its own pleasures. If it does not chart the transformation of Robbie, it does emphasize his love for Cecilia, and thus makes the ending so much more poignant. The main pleasure of Book 2, though, is the introduction of a cast of vivid characters and incidents. Mace and Nettles, the corporals forced to depend on Private Robbie because they cannot read a map, are convincing creations.