On an English country estate in the jittery, gilded era between the two great wars, two young people stand in the summer's heat, arguing by an ancient fountain. Cecilia is the daughter of the household, and Robbie is the cleaning woman's son, a brilliant boy whose Cambridge education has been benevolently financed by Cecilia's father. During their quarrel, the two manage to break a valuable porcelain vase, and in a fury largely engendered by her unacknowledged feelings for the young man, Cecilia strips off her clothes, leaps into the fountain and retrieves the fragments. It is a dazzling moment, full of beauty and ruin, lust and innocence, so highly charged that it's no wonder Cecilia's little sister, Briony, observing unseen from a window, feels a sense of menace. She concludes that Robbie has compelled her sister to do something shameful. This assumption, when combined with later events, brings disaster not simply to the two young people who are discovering themselves to be lovers, but to everyone else in the well-intentioned, prosperous family.
This is a crucial scene in the latest, luminous novel by Ian McEwan. As happens often with poetry, but much more rarely with novels, the book creates a curiously satisfying conflict of emotions. The pain and chaos of events are leavened by the delight of technical mastery. There is pleasure in having even our sorrows named with such precision. Sentences turn on a dime, or rather on an unexpected adjective, as when a litigious couple is described as "defending their good names with a most expensive ferocity."
Consider the description of the room of twelve-year-old Briony. In a slovenly household, it is an oasis of tidiness. Ona broad windowsill is set out a treasured model farm, consisting "of the usual animals, but all facing one way—towards their owner—as if about to break into song." The attentive air of this little army of animals perfectly catches the vanity of childhood, when it seems only proper and desirable to have universal attention focused on oneself.
The little barnyard world so neatly deployed is also emblematic of the slightly bigger world of the Tallis' estate, which has both the pleasing quality of a miniature and an innocent vanity, a smugness in the contentment so shortly to be swept away. McEwan is well aware of this, as when he describes the way Briony perceives that "writing stories not only involved secrecy, it also gave her all the pleasures of miniaturisation. A world could be made in five pages, and one that was more pleasing than a model farm."
What lies beyond that safe, well-controlled realm shows up in the novel's second half. Just as the first portion of the novel begins with the emblematic breaking of the vase, the second commences with a hallucinatory image of a child's smooth, severed leg caught in the branches of a tree. Robbie, enrolled as a private in the British Army, bears witness to such atrocities. In France during World War II, he participates in the hasty retreat that culminates with the evacuation at Dunkirk. Cecilia, a nurse in a veterans hospital in London, is coping with a parallel universe of brutality and absurdity, rigor and privation.
This latest work by McEwan is no less intricate than 1987's The Child in Time and 1998's Amsterdam, two of his previous eight novels that won the Whitbread Prize and the Booker Prize, respectively. In sensibility the world of Atonement is achingly reminiscent of that created by Richard Hughes in his classic novels, A High Wind in Jamaica and The Fox in the Attic. There is the same sharply detailed delight in life and the same dismaying awareness of how easily the treasures of normalcy can be lost. In both men's work, there is a grave acknowledgment that a child's moral sense and judgment are vastly different from an adult's—and that the consequences of this difference can be enormous. But Hughes, writing fifty years ago, made no sign that he, or his narrator, was aware of the reader's steady gaze. McEwan offers an additional challenge. He makes us ache for the young lovers to be reunited, and Briony—whom we discover is the narrator— seems to grant our wish. But does she?
The novel closes with an event postponed for sixty years. As in life, recurrence and familiar places give the narrator a sort of yardstick to gauge the changes in herself. Meanwhile, readers following a story over decades arrive at an apparent conclusion, then see the conclusion neatly undone, all the shining details exposed as invention, all replaced with circumstantial evidence. Clarity has bred not certainty but a sudden, rueful awareness of our own expectations, and of our nature as revealed in what we hope for.
This haunting novel, which just failed to win the Booker this year, is at once McEwan at his most closely observed and psychologically penetrating, and his most sweeping and expansive. It is in effect two, or even three, books in one, all masterfully crafted. The first part ushers us into a domestic crisis that becomes a crime story centered around an event that changes the lives of half a dozen people in an upper-middle-class country home on a hot English summer's day in 1935. Young Briony Tallis, a hyperimaginative 13-year-old who sees her older sister, Cecilia, mysteriously involved with their neighbor Robbie Turner, a fellow Cambridge student subsidized by the Tallis family, points a finger at Robbie when her young cousin is assaulted in the grounds that night; on her testimony alone, Robbie is jailed. The second part of the book moves forward five years to focus on Robbie, now freed and part of the British Army that was cornered and eventually evacuated by a fleet of small boats at Dunkirk during the early days of WWII. This is an astonishingly imagined fresco that bares the full anguish of what Britain in later years came to see as a kind of victory. In the third part, Briony becomes a nurse amid wonderfully observed scenes of London as the nation mobilizes. No, she doesn't have Robbie as a patient, but she begins to come to terms with what she has done and offers to make amends to him and Cecilia, now together as lovers. In an ironic epilogue that is yet another coup de theatre, McEwan offers Briony as an elderly novelist today, revisiting her past in fact and fancy and contributing a moving windup to the sustained flight of a deeply novelistic imagination. With each book McEwan ranges wider, and his powers have never been more fully in evidence than here. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
This book is currently number one in the paperback bestseller list, so I'm sure most of you are familiar with it. The question is whether YAs would enjoy reading the book. The main character is 13 years old as the novel begins, in England, in 1935. She is an expressive child, who feels a lot but doesn't always understand the feelings, and is overwhelmed by them. Class differences are a major element of the theme and plot. Briony, the girl, tells a blatant lie, accusing a young man of rape. This results in his imprisonment and disgrace. It also destroys the happiness of Briony's older sister, who loves the accused man. The next section of the book takes place during the war. Briony is a young woman now, trying to atone for her sin, but no apologies are good enough. The horrors of the war and its carnage perhaps put her crime into some lesser category, but not for the accused man and his beloved, whose happiness has been needlessly destroyed by the careless child. The last section of the book is many years later, as Briony is a successful playwright, approaching old age, when again she is faced with the reality of how her lie affected others. There is a certain irony in the final pages. McEwan has won many prizes for this book. It was a Booker Prize finalist in the U.K. and has been selected as a best book of the year by most major publications in the U.S.: The New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and others. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Random House, Anchor, 350p.,
The major events of Booker Prize winner McEwan's new novel occur one day in the summer of 1935. Briony Tallis, a precocious 13-year-old with an overactive imagination, witnesses an incident between Cecilia, her older sister, and Robbie Turner, son of the Tallis family's charwoman. Already startled by the sexual overtones of what she has seen, she is completely shocked that evening when she surreptitiously reads a suggestive note Robbie has mistakenly sent Cecilia. It then becomes easy for her to believe that the shadowy figure who assaults her cousin Lola late that night is Robbie. Briony's testimony sends Robbie to prison and, through an early release, into the army on the eve of World War II. Gradually understanding what she has done, Briony seeks atonement first through a career in nursing and then through writing, with the novel itself framed as a literary confession it has taken her a lifetime to write. Moving deftly between styles, this is a compelling exploration of guilt and the struggle for forgiveness. Recommended for most public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/01.] Lawrence Rungren, Merrimack Valley Lib. Consortium, Andover, MA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Set during the seemingly idyllic summer of 1935 at the country estate of the Tallis family, the first section of this thought-provoking novel ambles through one scorchingly hot day that changes the lives of almost everyone present. The catalyst is overly imaginative 13-year-old Briony, who accuses Robbie, her sister's childhood friend and their housemaid's son, of raping her cousin Lola. The young man is sent to prison and Cecilia, heartbroken, abandons her family and becomes a nursing sister in London. In the second part, McEwan vividly describes another single day, this time Robbie's experiences during the ignominious British retreat to Dunkirk early in World War II. Finally, readers meet Briony again, now a nursing student. She is aware that she might have been wrong that day five years earlier and begins to seek atonement, having clearly ruined two lives. In a story within a story, McEwan brilliantly engages readers in a tour de force of what ifs and might have beens until they begin to wonder what actually happened. The story is compelling, the characters well drawn and engaging, and the outcome is almost always in doubt. The descriptions of the retreat and the subsequent hospitalization of the soldiers are grim and realistic. Readers are spared little, yet the journey is worth the observed pain and distress. Well-read teens will find much to think about in this novel.-Susan H. Woodcock, Chantilly Regional Library, VA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
McEwan's latest, both powerful and equisite, considers the making of a writer, the dangers and rewards of imagination, and the juncture between innocence and awareness, all set against the late afternoon of an England soon to disappear.
From the Publisher
"McEwan's Atonement…truly dazzles, proving to be as much about the art and morality of writing as it is about the past…. The middle section of Atonement, the two vividly realized set pieces of Robbie's trek to the Channel and Briony's experiences with the wounded evacuees of Dunkirk, would alone have made an outstanding novel. In keeping with Robbie's wartime realization and clearly with McEwan's own credo that "without the details there could be no larger picture" the author's descriptions here are marked by bitter, relentless, closely researched fact. (When Briony loosens a soldier's head bandage, his brains threaten to fall in her lap; in the midst of an otherwise peaceful moment, Robbie spies a child's leg wedged in a tree.) But superb as those narratives are, they are only a fraction of the novel's achievement…. There is wonderful writing throughout as McEwan weaves his many themes the accidents of contingency, the sins of absent fathers, class oppression into his narrative, and in a magical love scene." Brian Bethune, Maclean’s, January 14, 2002
“…Atonement is a deliriously great read, but more than that it is a great book.… There are characters you follow with breathless anxiety; a plot worthy of a top-drawer suspense novelist, complete with jolting reversals; language that unspools seemingly effortlessly, yet leaves a minefield of still-to-be-detonated nouns and verbs…. rife with…unforgettable tableaux….” Zsuszi Gartner, The Globe and Mail, October 20, 2001
"What a joy it is to read a book that shocks one into remembering just how high one's literary standards should be.… a tour de force by one of England's best novelists…. Atonement is a spectacular book; as good a novel and more satisfying… than anything McEwan has written….sublimely written narrative…. The Dunkirk passage is a stupendous piece of writing, a set piece that could easily stand on its own.… ” Noah Richler, National Post, 19 October 2001
“leaves no doubt as to why he is a major force in contemporary literature” Joshua Knelman, National Post, 20 October 2001.
"I can’t imagine many readers who won’t find it compelling from beginning to end…. McEwan has dealt with major themes before in his novels, but never at this length and with this narrative richness. With Atonement he has staked a convincing claim to be the finest of all that brilliantly talented crew of British novelists, including Margaret Drabble, Martin Amis and Graham Swift, who rose to prominence in the 1980s." Phillip Marchand, Toronto Star, 23 December 2001.
“Atonement has power and stature and is compulsively readable.” The Gazette (Montreal)
“It is difficult to imagine how the book might be bettered. Bold in its intentions and flawlessly executed, Atonement is one of the rare novels to strike a balance between “old-fashioned” storytelling and a postmodern exploration of the process of literary creation. Atonement is a tremendous achievement, a rich demonstration of McEwan’s gifts as a storyteller.” The Vancouver Sun
“Ian McEwan’s writing is so vivid it can make your eyes ache. But you can’t look less closely or put the book down. Such is McEwan’s growing strength. [A]tonement is exacting and poetic in detail as well as generous with wry, often heart-rending insight. Each character is richly portrayed and fully realized, from their subtlest thoughts and motivations to their period dress and surroundings. Atonement sustains, rewards and surprises right up to its final page.” Victoria Times-Colonist
“With a clear prose style and a humming sense of tension throughout, Atonement is both illuminating and entertaining. McEwan believes in love and goodness, but he is far more interested in good’s contrary, whether it is evil or mere psychological weakness. There may be atonement for the past, but there is never redemption.” The Edmonton Journal
“Class conflict, war and the responsibilities of the artist are among the themes of Atonement, but it is Ian McEwan’s writing that makes this novel one of his best: lush and langorous in the long first section, understated and precise in the latter two.” The Ottawa Citizen
"The engrossing new novel by the winner of the 1998 Booker Prize hauls a defining part of the British literary tradition up to and into the 21st century.” Geoff Dyer, The Guardian
“It is rare for a critic to feel justified in using the word “masterpiece,” but Ian McEwan’s new book really deserves to be called one...Atonement is a work of astonishing depth and humanity... This novel really is worthy of the Booker.” The Economist
“The narrative, as always with McEwan, smoulders with slow-burning menace. . .the book is magically readable and never has McEwan shown himself to be more in sympathy with the vulnerability of the human heart.” The Sunday Times
“McEwan is a consistently entertaining storyteller, giving good weight right up until the final page. Even by his exacting standards his latest novel is extraordinary. His trademark sentences of sustained eloquence and delicacy, which have sometimes over-rationalized the evocation of emotion, strike a deeper resonance in Atonement.” The Times
“…no contemporary of his has shown such passionate dedication to the art of the novel.” Frank Kermode, London Review of Books
“…this impressive, engrossing, deep and surprising novel…” Hermione Lee, The Observer Review
“…a classic McEwan performance, combining an intense forward narrative thrust with the sharpness of observation and description that has made him this country’s unrivalled literary giant.” William Sutcliffe, The Independent on Sunday
“…excellent by any standards….McEwan has surpassed himself.” Caroline Moore, The Sunday Telegraph
"He is a consistently entertaining storyteller, giving good weight right up until the final page. Even by his exacting standards his latest novel is extraordinary. His trademark sentences of sustained eloquence and delicacy, which have sometimes over-rationalized the evocation of emotion, strike a deeper resonance in Atonement. It draws a vivid picture of English society before the war as represented by a single upper class family, while methodically scratching at the surface of its façade. At the same time it is a novel about how fiction is constructed." Russel Celyn Jones, The Times
"Atonement is...a meditation on the impulse of storytelling itself, on the wish to give shape to experience which deceives no less than it illuminates." David Sexton, Evening Standard
"This great symphonic movement 190 pages of peerlessly brooding prose slides and then hurtles to a terrible climax." Boyd Tonkin, The Weekend Review The Independent
"Subtle as well as powerful, adeptly encompassing comedy as well as atrocity, Atonement is a richly intricate book. Unshowy symmetries and patterns underlie its emotional force and psychological compulsion." Peter Kemp, Sunday Times
"The control he exerts over his material here is masterly. Historical detail is marshalled with cool skill, and the textures of events and objects are depicted with eloquent exactitude. The story demands attention to rare effect. Here, then, we see an outstanding writer stretching himself to a new extreme. The result is superb." Henry Hitchings, Financial Times Weekend
"There is probably no finer prose writer alive in Britain now, no-one better at making a sentence, no-one better at descriptive writing, no-one who can get so close to the vividness of other peoples interior selves." Linda Grant
"...it is manifestly high-calibre stuff: cool, perceptive, serious and vibrant with suprises" Robert Winder, New Statesman
"It is, I think the best thing he has ever written and I read it (at first) as one might drink a good wine, relishing every word, not wishing to swig too fast, not wanting it to be over." Kate Kellaway, The Observer Review
"The novel is extraordinarily accomplished and moving, and is by some distance the best thing McEwan has done." Phil Baker, The Daily Telegraph
Read an Excerpt
CHAPTER ONECopyright 2001 by Ian McEwan
The play, for which Briony had designed the posters, programmes and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crepe paper, was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch. When the preparations were complete, she had nothing to do but contemplate her finished draft and wait for the appearance of her cousins from the distant north. There would be time for only one day of rehearsal before her brother arrived. At some moments chilling, at others desperately sad, the play told a tale of the heart whose message, conveyed in a rhyming prologue, was that love which did not build a foundation on good sense was doomed. The reckless passion of the heroine, Arabella, for a wicked foreign count is punished by ill fortune when she contracts cholera during an impetuous dash towards a seaside town with her intended. Deserted by him and nearly everybody else, bed-bound in a garret, she discovers in herself a sense of humour. Fortune presents her a second chance in the form of an impoverished doctor — in fact, a prince in disguise who has elected to work among the needy. Healed by him, Arabella chooses judiciously this time, and is rewarded by reconciliation with her family and a wedding with the medical prince on `a windy sunlit day in spring'.
Mrs Tallis read the seven pages of The Trials of Arabella in her bedroom, at her dressing table, with the author's arm around her shoulder the whole while. Briony studied her mother's face for every trace of shifting emotion, and Emily Tallis obliged with looks of alarm, snickers of glee and, at theend, grateful smiles and wise, affirming nods. She took her daughter in her arms, onto her lap — ah, that hot smooth little body she remembered from its infancy, and still not gone from her, not quite yet — and said that the play was 'stupendous', and agreed instantly, murmuring into the tight whorl of the girl's ear, that this word could be quoted on the poster which was to be on an easel in the entrance hall by the ticket booth.
Briony was hardly to know it then, but this was the project's highest point of fulfilment. Nothing came near it for satisfaction, all else was dreams and frustration. There were moments in the summer dusk after her light was out, burrowing in the delicious gloom of her canopy bed, when she made her heart thud with luminous, yearning fantasies, little playlets in themselves, every one of which featured Leon. In one, his big, good-natured face buckled in grief as Arabella sank in loneliness and despair. In another, there he was, cocktail in hand at some fashionable city watering hole, overheard boasting to a group of friends: Yes, my younger sister, Briony Tallis the writer, you must surely have heard of her. In a third he punched the air in exultation as the final curtain fell, although there was no curtain, there was no possibility of a curtain. Her play was not for her cousins, it was for her brother, to celebrate his return, provoke his admiration and guide him away from his careless succession of girlfriends, towards the right form of wife, the one who would persuade him to return to the countryside, the one who would sweetly request Briony's services as a bridesmaid.
She was one of those children possessed by a desire to have the world just so. Whereas her big sister's room was a stew of unclosed books, unfolded clothes, unmade bed, unemptied ashtrays, Briony's was a shrine to her controlling demon: the model farm spread across a deep window ledge consisted of the usual animals, but all facing one way — towards their owner — as if about to break into song, and even the farmyard hens were neatly corralled. In fact, Briony's was the only tidy upstairs room in the house. Her straight-backed dolls in their many-roomed mansion appeared to be under strict instructions not to touch the walls; the various thumb-sized figures to be found standing about her dressing table — cowboys, deep-sea divers, humanoid mice — suggested by their even ranks and spacing a citizen's army awaiting orders.
A taste for the miniature was one aspect of an orderly spirit. Another was a passion for secrets: in a prized varnished cabinet, a secret drawer was opened by pushing against the grain of a cleverly turned dovetail joint, and here she kept a diary locked by a clasp, and a notebook written in a code of her own invention. In a toy safe opened by six secret numbers she stored letters and postcards. An old tin petty cash box was hidden under a removable floorboard beneath her bed. In the box were treasures that dated back four years, to her ninth birthday when she began collecting: a mutant double acorn, fool's gold, a rain-making spell bought at a funfair, a squirrel's skull as light as a leaf.
But hidden drawers, lockable diaries and cryptographic systems could not conceal from Briony the simple truth: she had no secrets. Her wish for a harmonious, organised world denied her the reckless possibilities of wrongdoing. Mayhem and destruction were too chaotic for her tastes, and she did not have it in her to be cruel. Her effective status as an only child, as well as the relative isolation of the Tallis house, kept her, at least during the long summer holidays, from girlish intrigues with friends. Nothing in her life was sufficiently interesting or shameful to merit hiding; no one knew about the squirrel's skull beneath her bed, but no one wanted to know. None of this was particularly an affliction; or rather, it appeared so only in retrospect, once a solution had been found.
At the age of eleven she wrote her first story — a foolish affair, imitative of half a dozen folk tales and lacking, she realised later, that vital knowingness about the ways of the world which compels a reader's respect. But this first clumsy attempt showed her that the imagination itself was a source of secrets: once she had begun a story, no one could be told. Pretending in words was too tentative, too vulnerable, too embarrassing to let anyone know. Even writing out the she saids, the and thens, made her wince, and she felt foolish, appearing to know about the emotions of an imaginary being. Self-exposure was inevitable the moment she described a character's weakness; the reader was bound to speculate that she was describing herself. What other authority could she have? Only when a story was finished, all fates resolved and the whole matter sealed off at both ends so it resembled, at least in this one respect, every other finished story in the world, could she feel immune, and ready to punch holes in the margins, bind the chapters with pieces of string, paint or draw the cover, and take the finished work to show to her mother, or her father, when he was home.
Her efforts received encouragement. In fact, they were welcomed as the Tallises began to understand that the baby of the family possessed a strange mind and a facility with words. The long afternoons she spent browsing through dictionary and thesaurus made for constructions that were inept, but hauntingly so: the coins a villain concealed in his pocket were 'esoteric', a hoodlum caught stealing a car wept in 'shameless auto-exculpation', the heroine on her thoroughbred stallion made a 'cursory' journey through the night, the king's furrowed brow was the 'hieroglyph' of his displeasure. Briony was encouraged to read her stories aloud in the library and it surprised her parents and older sister to hear their quiet girl perform so boldly, making big gestures with her free arm, arching her eyebrows as she did the voices, and looking up from the page for seconds at a time as she read in order to gaze into one face after the other, unapologetically demanding her family's total attention as she cast her narrative spell.
Even without their attention and praise and obvious pleasure, Briony could not have been held back from her writing. In any case, she was discovering, as had many writers before her, that not all recognition is helpful. Cecilia's enthusiasm, for example, seemed a little overstated, tainted with condescension perhaps, and intrusive too; her big sister wanted each bound story catalogued and placed on the library shelves, between Rabindranath Tagore and Quintus Tertullian. If this was supposed to be a joke, Briony ignored it. She was on course now, and had found satisfaction on other levels; writing stories not only involved secrecy, it also gave her all the pleasures of miniaturisation. A world could be made in five pages, and one that was more pleasing than a model farm. The childhood of a spoiled prince could be framed within half a page, a moonlit dash through sleepy villages was one rhythmically emphatic sentence, falling in love could be achieved in a single word--a glance. The pages of a recently finished story seemed to vibrate in her hand with all the life they contained. Her passion for tidiness was also satisfied, for an unruly world could be made just so. A crisis in a heroine's life could be made to coincide with hailstones, gales and thunder, whereas nuptials were generally blessed with good light and soft breezes. A love of order also shaped the principles of justice, with death and marriage the main engines of housekeeping, the former being set aside exclusively for the morally dubious, the latter a reward withheld until the final page.
The play she had written for Leon's homecoming was her first excursion into drama, and she had found the transition quite effortless. It was a relief not to be writing out the she saids, or describing the weather or the onset of spring or her heroine's face — beauty, she had discovered, occupied a narrow band. Ugliness, on the other hand, had infinite variation. A universe reduced to what was said in it was tidiness indeed, almost to the point of nullity, and to compensate, every utterance was delivered at the extremity of some feeling or other, in the service of which the exclamation mark was indispensable. The Trials of Arabella may have been a melodrama, but its author had yet to hear the term. The piece was intended to inspire not laughter, but terror, relief and instruction, in that order, and the innocent intensity with which Briony set about the project — the posters, tickets, sales booth — made her particularly vulnerable to failure. She could easily have welcomed Leon with another of her stories, but it was the news that her cousins from the north were coming to stay that had prompted this leap into a new form.
That Lola, who was fifteen, and the nine-year-old twins, Jackson and Pierrot, were refugees from a bitter domestic civil war should have mattered more to Briony. She had heard her mother criticise the impulsive behaviour of her younger sister Hermione, and lament the situation of the three children, and denounce her meek, evasive brother-in-law Cecil who had fled to the safety of All Souls' College, Oxford. Briony had heard her parents and sister analyse the latest twists and outrages, charges and counter charges, and she knew the visit was an open-ended one, and might even extend into term time. She had heard it said that the house could easily absorb three children, and that the Quinceys could stay as long as they liked, provided the parents, if they ever visited simultaneously, kept their quarrels away from the Tallis household. Two rooms near Briony's had been dusted down, new curtains had been hung and furniture carried in from other rooms. Normally, she would have been involved in these preparations, but they happened to coincide with her two-day writing bout and the beginnings of the front-of-house construction. She vaguely knew that divorce was an affliction, but she did not regard it as a proper subject, and gave it no thought. It was a mundane unravelling that could not be reversed, and therefore offered no opportunities to the storyteller: it belonged in the realm of disorder. Marriage was the thing, or rather, a wedding was, with its formal neatness of virtue rewarded, the thrill of its pageantry and banqueting, and dizzy promise of lifelong union. A good wedding was an unacknowledged representation of the as yet unthinkable — sexual bliss. In the aisles of country churches and grand city cathedrals, witnessed by a whole society of approving family and friends, her heroines and heroes reached their innocent climaxes and needed to go no further.
If divorce had presented itself as the dastardly antithesis of all this, it could easily have been cast onto the other pan of the scales, along with betrayal, illness, thieving, assault and mendacity. Instead it showed an unglamorous face of dull complexity and incessant wrangling. Like re-armament and the Abyssinia Question and gardening, it was simply not a subject, and when, after a long Saturday morning wait, Briony heard at last the sound of wheels on the gravel below her bedroom window, and snatched up her pages and ran down the stairs, across the hallway and out into the blinding light of midday, it was not insensitivity so much as a highly focused artistic ambition that caused her to shout to the dazed young visitors huddled together by the trap with their luggage, 'I've got your parts, all written out. First performance tomorrow! Rehearsals start in five minutes!'
Immediately, her mother and sister were there to interpose a blander timetable. The visitors--all three were ginger-haired and freckled — were shown their rooms, their cases were carried up by Hardman's son Danny, there was orange juice in the kitchen, a tour of the house, a swim in the pool and lunch in the south garden, under the shade of the vines. All the while, Emily and Cecilia Tallis maintained a patter that surely robbed the guests of the ease it was supposed to confer. Briony knew that if she had travelled two hundred miles to a strange house, bright questions and jokey asides, and being told in a hundred different ways that she was free to choose, would have oppressed her. It was not generally realised that what children mostly wanted was to be left alone. However, the Quinceys worked hard at pretending to be amused or liberated, and this bode well for The Trials of Arabella: this trio clearly had the knack of being what they were not, even though they barely resembled the characters they were to play. Before lunch Briony slipped away to the empty rehearsal room — the nursery — and walked up and down on the painted floorboards, considering her casting options.
On the face of it, Arabella, whose hair was as dark as Briony's, was unlikely to be descended from freckled parents, or elope with a foreign freckled count, rent a garret room from a freckled innkeeper, lose her heart to a freckled prince and be married by a freckled vicar before a freckled congregation. But all this was to be so. Her cousins' colouring was too vivid — virtually fluorescent!— to be concealed. The best that could be said was that Arabella's lack of freckles was the sign — the hieroglyph, Briony might have written — of her distinction. Her purity of spirit would never be in doubt, though she moved through a blemished world. There was a further problem with the twins, who could not be told apart by a stranger. Was it right that the wicked count should so completely resemble the handsome prince, or that both should resemble Arabella's father and the vicar? What if Lola were cast as the prince? Jackson and Pierrot seemed typical eager little boys who would probably do as they were told. But would their sister play a man? She had green eyes and sharp bones in her face, and hollow cheeks, and there was something brittle in her reticence that suggested strong will and a temper easily lost. Merely floating the possibility of the role to Lola might provoke a crisis, and could Briony really hold hands with her before the altar, while Jackson intoned from the Book of Common Prayer?
What People are saying about this
From the Publisher
"McEwan's Atonement…truly dazzles, proving to be as much about the art and morality of writing as it is about the past…. The middle section of Atonement, the two vividly realized set pieces of Robbie's trek to the Channel and Briony's experiences with the wounded evacuees of Dunkirk, would alone have made an outstanding novel…. There is wonderful writing throughout as McEwan weaves his many themes — the accidents of contingency, the sins of absent fathers, class oppression into his narrative, and in a magical love scene."
—Brian Bethune, Maclean’s
"…Atonement is a deliriously great read, but more than that it is a great book.… There are characters you follow with breathless anxiety; a plot worthy of a top-drawer suspense novelist, complete with jolting reversals; language that unspools seemingly effortlessly, yet leaves a minefield of still-to-be-detonated nouns and verbs…. rife with…unforgettable tableaux…."
—The Globe and Mail
"What a joy it is to read a book that shocks one into remembering just how high one's literary standards should be.… a tour de force by one of England's best novelists…. Atonement is a spectacular book; as good a novel and more satisfying… than anything McEwan has written….sublimely written narrative…. The Dunkirk passage is a stupendous piece of writing, a set piece that could easily stand on its own.… "
—Noah Richler, National Post
"I can’t imagine many readers who won’t find it compelling from beginning to end…. McEwan has dealt with major themes before in his novels, but never at this length and with this narrative richness. With Atonement he has staked a convincing claim to be the finest of all that brilliantly talented crew of British novelists, including Margaret Drabble, Martin Amis and Graham Swift, who rose to prominence in the 1980s."
—Phillip Marchand, The Toronto Star
"Atonement has power and stature and is compulsively readable."
—The Gazette (Montreal)
"It is difficult to imagine how the book might be bettered. Bold in its intentions and flawlessly executed, Atonement is one of the rare novels to strike a balance between 'old-fashioned' storytelling and a postmodern exploration of the process of literary creation. Atonement is a tremendous achievement, a rich demonstration of McEwan’s gifts as a storyteller."
—The Vancouver Sun
"Ian McEwan’s writing is so vivid it can make your eyes ache. But you can’t look less closely or put the book down. Such is McEwan’s growing strength. Atonement is exacting and poetic in detail as well as generous with wry, often heart-rending insight. Each character is richly portrayed and fully realized, from their subtlest thoughts and motivations to their period dress and surroundings. Atonement sustains, rewards and surprises right up to its final page."
"With a clear prose style and a humming sense of tension throughout, Atonement is both illuminating and entertaining. McEwan believes in love and goodness, but he is far more interested in good’s contrary, whether it is evil or mere psychological weakness. There may be atonement for the past, but there is never redemption."
—The Edmonton Journal
"Class conflict, war and the responsibilities of the artist are among the themes of Atonement, but it is Ian McEwan’s writing that makes this novel one of his best: lush and langorous in the long first section, understated and precise in the latter two."
—The Ottawa Citizen
"…a classic McEwan performance, combining an intense forward narrative thrust with the sharpness of observation and description that has made him this country’s unrivalled literary giant."
—The Independent (U.K.)
"Atonement [is] McEwan's best novel, so far, his masterpiece…. Atonement is...a meditation on the impulse of storytelling itself, on the wish to give shape to experience which deceives no less than it illuminates."
—Evening Standard (U.K.)
"The close-up verdict will be simple enough: Atonement is a magnificent novel, shaped and paced with awesome confidence and eloquence; as searching an account of error, shame and reparation as any in modern fiction…. The bigger picture would have to set it within the long sweep of a literary canon. With a lordly self-consciousness, McEwan here blends his own climate into the weather-pattern of classic English fiction. Atonement is not a modest work; but then (to distort Churchill on Attlee), it has an awful lot to be immodest about."
—The Independent (U.K.)