Atonement: A Novel

Atonement: A Novel

4.0 451
by Ian McEwan

View All Available Formats & Editions

The novel opens on a sweltering summer day in 1935 at the Tallis family’s mansion in the Surrey countryside. Thirteen-year-old Briony has written a play in honor of the visit of her adored older brother Leon; other guests include her three young cousins -- refugees from their parent’s marital breakup -- Leon’s friend Paul Marshall, the manufacturer


The novel opens on a sweltering summer day in 1935 at the Tallis family’s mansion in the Surrey countryside. Thirteen-year-old Briony has written a play in honor of the visit of her adored older brother Leon; other guests include her three young cousins -- refugees from their parent’s marital breakup -- Leon’s friend Paul Marshall, the manufacturer of a chocolate bar called “Amo” that soldiers will be able to carry into war, and Robbie Turner, the son of the family charlady whose brilliantly successful college career has been funded by Mr. Tallis. Jack Tallis is absent from the gathering; he spends most of his time in London at the War Ministry and with his mistress. His wife Emily is a semi-invalid, nursing chronic migraine headaches. Their elder daughter Cecilia is also present; she has just graduated from Cambridge and is at home for the summer, restless and yearning for her life to really begin. Rehearsals for Briony’s play aren’t going well; her cousin Lola has stolen the starring role, the twin boys can’t speak the lines properly, and Briony suddenly realizes that her destiny is to be a novelist, not a dramatist.

In the midst of the long hot afternoon, Briony happens to be watching from a window when Cecilia strips off her clothes and plunges into the fountain on the lawn as Robbie looks on. Later that evening, Briony thinks she sees Robbie attacking Cecilia in the library, she reads a note meant for Cecilia, her cousin Lola is sexually assaulted, and she makes an accusation that she will repent for the rest of her life.

The next two parts of Atonement shift to the spring of 1940 as Hitler’s forces are sweeping across the Low Countries and into France. Robbie Turner, wounded, joins the disastrous British retreat to Dunkirk. Instead of going up to Cambridge to begin her studies, Briony has become a nurse in one of London’s military hospitals. The fourth and final section takes place in 1999, as Briony celebrates her 77th birthday with the completion of a book about the events of 1935 and 1940, a novel called Atonement.

In its broad historical framework Atonement is a departure from McEwan’s earlier work, and he loads the story with an emotional intensity and a gripping plot reminiscent of the best nineteenth-century fiction. Brilliant and utterly enthralling in its depiction of childhood, love and war, England and class, the novel is a profoundly moving exploration of shame and forgiveness and the difficulty of absolution.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

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.
—Penelope Mesic
Publishers Weekly
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.,
— Claire Rosser
Library Journal
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.
Kirkus Reviews
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.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sold by:
Random House
Sales rank:
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt


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?

Copyright 2001 by Ian McEwan

Meet the Author

“It caused me a lot of anxiety,” McEwan has said of this, his ninth novel, which he had been waiting years to write. He is a careful writer, with a tendency to worry about how his books will turn out. This one emerged slowly; only after 14 months of ‘doodling’ did he have a paragraph and a half with which to begin the book, now the start of the second chapter: Cecilia standing in the doorway with a bunch of flowers, and Robbie outside.

McEwan likes to take a particularly potent, decisive event bringing the protagonists together -- the snatching of a three-year-old girl in The Child In Time, a tragic ballooning incident at the start of Enduring Love -- and let the emotions develop from there. Atonement is his most deeply emotional book to date, and he is pleased that it turned out a moving love story; he has more often been seen as a master of the gruesome, the disturbing and the morbid after his early novels in the 1970’s. His first collection of stories, First Love, Last Rites, was published in 1975 and immediately won him the nickname Ian Macabre. The sense of menace is present from the beginning of his latest novel, and darkness continues through the 1940 sections, but there is a warmth not usually associated with McEwan’s work. “At my age,” he says, “there is an obligation to celebrate the good things in life.”

He found his own way towards a love of fiction; there weren’t many books at home when he was growing up. His father was an Army NCO, and the family moved from London at times to North Germany, North Africa, and Singapore, where as a teenager he would find himself engrossed in novels by Iris Murdoch and Graham Greene. Attending a state-run boarding school, he was the first in his family to get a university education; he was also the first applicant to the creative writing course run by Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson at the University of East Anglia. Now in his mid-fifties, he has published nine novels and two books of short stories. He lives in Oxford with his two sons.

His father, who died in 1996, was a dispatch rider with the Highland Light Infantry and was wounded by shrapnel in both legs during the retreat from Dunkirk; McEwan always knew he would write about it, and he is sorry he wasn’t able to show this novel to his father, who became obsessed with his experiences at Dunkirk in his last years. “He found another man wounded in both arms and together they managed to ride a Harley-Davidson to safety.” The author’s mother, who worked as a cleaning lady, is also present in places in the book; she suffers from vascular dementia, a disease that erases the memory, which afflicts Briony late in life.

McEwan feels Briony is the best fictional character he has created yet. Her mistake in telling a lie is the turning point that pulls her from the childhood world of innocence, a theme he has often touched upon. Her shaky claim provides a focus for the class prejudices of her elders, and becomes destructive. “I was haunted by the witch-hunts of the recovered memory syndrome in the Eighties and Nineties. Children were prompted by leading questions from earnest social workers and court officials.” The situation he created allowed him to address this in an oblique way.

Atonement is about storytelling, and the dangers of applying fictional form to real life, of imposing order and drama on life’s confusions; as the Financial Times put it, “the power of narrative to create and manipulate truth”. If McEwan likes to play with perspective and describe the same experience from several points of view, this is partly because he feels novels are “about showing the possibility of what it is like to be someone else.” Unlike any other form of art, novels give us the opportunity to get inside someone else’s head and try to understand them. “Other people are as alive as you are. Cruelty is a failure of imagination.”

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Brief Biography

Oxford, England
Date of Birth:
June 21, 1948
Place of Birth:
Aldershot, England
B.A., University of Sussex, 1970; M.A., University of East Anglia, 1971

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Atonement 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 451 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
At first I didn't know what to think because the first part of the book is very detailed and not fast paced. I almost gave up, but I wanted to read the book before seeing the movie. I'm glad I stayed with it, because as I read further I couldn't put the book down. As you read, you will think you understand why the author titled the book 'Atonement,' but not until the final chapter will you comprehend its true significance. The story haunted me for days afterward. One of the best books I've ever read.
Taylor-Marie More than 1 year ago
Sadly I have not read any other books to compare this book to, but Atonement surely is a great book to read for someone starting Ian McEwan's novels. His writing style is exquisite. McEwan's writing manages to describe the story while moving the story along. So far I found it to be the best book that intertwines the troubles of war and the troubles at home with the main characters. His choice of switching point of views is very well done, although a bit confusing in the beginning the book. Nevertheless, this is definetely a good buy for your personal library.
fitz12383 More than 1 year ago
I usually make a point of not seeing a movie before I get a chance to read the book, but the opposite is true for my experience with McEwan's Atonement. I rented the movie last summer from Netflix and as soon as the movie ended, I stared at the blank screen for a moment, blinked a couple of times in wonderment, and then hit play and watched it in its entirety a second time. Needless to say, I was completely entranced with the storyline and the cinematography. All of this is to say that after having such a wonderful experience with the movie adaptation, I began to worry that I'd ruined the possibility of having a good reading experience with the novel. I find it difficult to read a book after I've seen the movie since I have so many preconceived notions of the characters' appearance and eccentricities locked into my head visually. Never fear. I loved the book just as much as the movie. I actually listened to this book, mostly while driving, and I'm quite lucky I didn't wind up in a ditch somewhere due to my complete inattention to my surroundings. I became so wrapped up in the characters, the story, and the heart wrenching consequences of one thirteen-year-old's misinterpretation of a number of events and a rash decision. This was my first foray into Ian McEwan's writing and it definitely won't be the last. I was mesmerized with his writing style. The characters, especially that of the young Briony, were so well-drawn. She is so frustratingly self-absorbed and narcissistic in the beginning of the novel, and her imaginative whims that so many young girls possess lead to such a catastrophic turn of events. I'll say no more. You must read it for yourself. I don't often reread books anymore due to the sheer quantity of amazing novels out there that I must get my hands on, but I can definitely say this is a book I will revisit, perhaps a few times, in the future.
Oneira More than 1 year ago
Definitely not what I thought it was. I have respect for what McEwan was doing, but this book just wasn't for me. It was basically a psychological study of the characters, not having much to do with the plot or central story much of the time. I would have liked it better if he did this study while furthering the central story. I felt like he was leaving out a lot in the characters, too. Something was missing for me, they didn't feel whole. But, I do applaud his general writing style and the basic story which was quite touching.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was extremely disappointed while reading this novel. I can't even count the number of pages I skipped because they were filled with useless details. There was too much fluff and not enough actual story. After I was finished with the book, I couldn't believe the story had ended. There was really NO ending to this story. Briony was an unlikable character and it was almost painful reading all of her ignorant thoughts. The story read as though McEwan was desperately trying to reach a deadline. All in all, this book was terrible. Stick with Nicholas Sparks if you absolutely must have a love story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The reviews below are confusing to me because McEwan's measured writing communicates an eerie stillness that drew me in right from the start. This is an absolutely masterful and emotionally intense novel that will stay with you long after you finish reading it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Not my favorite, some passages were just too long and irrevelant, like the second section. The only charcter I liked with Birony becuase she managed to be more of a dramatic and developing character, unlike CC and Robbie. Things were confusing too. took abou 100 pages to explain a night's tale. It wasn't because there was a lot of action, but McGown really went into depth behind the motives. Although I did not enjoy the book, I really appreciated it after I watched the movie...which I do not recemmend until you have finished this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really looked forward to reading this book but decided I was in for a long read when nothing seemed to be happening the first 200 pages. This book, while well written as far as imagery, was too long in getting to the point. And it was confusing. There was so little dialogue and toooooo much description, I became easily bored with it. And I felt like the atonement never came except in the ramblings of an old woman. Disappointing book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
There were many well written parts. Unfortunately the story dragged on in many areas. Briony's character was annoying. The ending was very sad and disappointing. I was sorry I read it. The foul language was offensive and unnecessary to the story.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Masterful and lyrical. An epic novel of love and responsibility, it traces the coming of age of a people. The characters are rivetting, and real. The storytelling is subtle and poignant. The kind that echoes in your head, long after.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the first Ian McEwan book I've read. I found the aforementioned Briony incredibly detestable, yet McEwan presents the inner workings of her childish mind so elegantly that you find yourself understanding her despite your feelings. Other characters are equally well revealed. But the true brilliance of Atonement is the ending, when all the pieces come together and the framework of the story becomes clear. Well worth a read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sad but extremely moving. I know it stayed with me for quite some time after reading it. Give it a chance... especially if you like historical fiction.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this book sometime ago, but it remains a favorite. It is extremely vivid without being slow and overly wordy. You will be frustrated and sad, but you can't put it down. Amazing story with characters you will develop strong feelings for one way or another. I thought the movie adaptation was quite good for a change, but you should still read the book.
Wilhelmina_Hyena More than 1 year ago
I read this novel several years ago, and to this day I think of it! I feel that it has a pulse, and actual life of it's own. The beginning is rather lackadaisical, not unlike a lazy summer day. And then it picks up pace and by the time you're half way through you can not put it down. The story is absolutely haunting! However, This is a novel for the more cerebral reader. People who prefer those first page attention grabbing action stories will likely not take the sweet time to savour this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great book. wonderful story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
McEwan's prose is not everyone's cup of tea. He lulls the reader into a sense of serenity through lyrical prose, then slams the reader against a brick wall of devastating reality. This is a heartbreaking story. Kleenex required. Stick with it and you will be rewarded.
Kaylan Doyle More than 1 year ago
Please read this incredibly poignant story. It is beautifully written...haunting and memorable long after you finish the last page. I loved the tone and easy flow of a very heavy subject matter...I dont know anyone who didnt love it.
Shannon Thole More than 1 year ago
This story captured my emotions with the enlightening end. The story is like a happily ever after in reverse. This is by far my favorite book to date. Surely read the book before seeing the movie, I think the movie was god but I think it ruins the effect you would get reading first.
PatriciaJL More than 1 year ago
Where to start with this book... This was an amazing book! Atonement is told from many different points of views: Briony Tallis, Cecilia Tallis, and Robbie Turner. Briony Tallis is introduced to as a 13-year old who has a passion for writing, and for creating imagined worlds. Cecilia Tallis, Briony's older sister, is more concerned with relaxing and smoking while her mother has one of her "headaches". Robbie Turner, a son of one of the household maids, dreams about going to college for medicine. The main events behind the whole pot of this book all occur in a single day. Briony misinterprets an interaction taken place between Cecilia and Robbie while looking out her window. To add to Briony's imagination of what she "thinks" took place she intercepts a note written by Robbie addressed to Cecilia. Robbie gave this note by accident, with the intended note still at his house. Inside this note sexual and personal thoughts of Robbie's send Briony's thoughts array. Later on Briony see's an intimate event take place between Robbie and Cecilia, not understanding at all what it means - she believes that Robbie has "assaulted" Cecilia and is thus a bad man. If this wasn't bad enough, one of Briony's cousins is found violated later that night in the woods. Briony automatically believes and accuses Robbie as the assailant. Briony's accusation sets in motion the events for the rest of the book - Robbie is given the choice to either go to Jail or to serve in the Army; he chooses the Army, which changes him completely. Cecilia becomes a nurse, as she too is changed by Briony's accusation. As Briony grows up she starts to question her actions and realizes her mistake. Can she ever make up for the pain and heartache she has caused, for tearing apart two people who loved each other?
queen125 More than 1 year ago
This book completely absorbs your attention, and you keep reading to see what happens. Well- written and really riles up every emotion: humor, anger, happiness, and sadness. I acutally saw the movie first and told myself I had to read the book. I was not disappointed.
Whitty More than 1 year ago
Although, McEwan writes beautifully, with many details, I found this book difficult to pick up. It was a good story, but I felt bored in some sections throughout the book.
Aglaia More than 1 year ago
I usually prefer reading the book first, and then seeing the movie, as that`s the way it should go. With Atonement, I saw the movie first, and of course, the movie is great, the actors amazing, yet I still wish I had read the novel first, so that I could have imagined the characters for myself.This way, everything was a bit set already. This is good writing, disturbing, sensual, compelling. The characters are unforgettable, you can almost touch the heat of the summer on the pages, and the passions that set course for the events. I could not put it down. What a sad, destroying night taht not even a lifetime of atonement could set right. I recommend it to everyone who loves good literature. Enjoy.
XavierAlmand More than 1 year ago
This is an engaging story and so finely written that the reading is both effortless and seductive. After I had finished (that is, after drying my eyes and regaining my breath), I was amazed to realize how complex a plot it is considering how smoothly it is told. By far, it is the best book I have read in years. The story starts on a summer day at a large country estate in pre-WWII England. For anyone who delights in the heady mix of intelligence, innocence and youthful imagination, the beginning is like eating rich chocolate: 13 year old Briony has written a play -- the references to Austen, Burney, and family performances within 18th century lore are abundant and perfect -- to be rehearsed and performed by her unwilling and displaced visiting cousins in order to celebrate her brother's return to home with his sophisticated friend. However, reheasals in the playroom for THE TRIALS OF ARABELLA (of course) do not run smoothly: the twins boys do not understand what is expected of them; there's tension between Briony and 15 year old Lola. During the hot summer afternoon, Briony looks out the window to see her older sister Cecilia and Robbie, the cleaning lady's son, having what looks like some kind of menacing (and intimate) interaction in the fountain. The rest of the day's events and mishaps play out without implication until nightfall when a real crime of a sexual nature occurs and Briony's overactive imagination and lack of sophistication lead her to make a accusation which results in genuine tragedy for everyone. Without revealing the entire plot and overwhelming descriptions of war and survival, Briny spends her life paying for this mistake. Near the end of her long life, and having enjoyed without enjoyment a successful writing career, Briony's birthday is celebrated by her relations. This party is held at the old country house, now a renovated hotel, where her grand nieces and nephews perform THE TRIALS OF ARABELLA, a deeply emotional and incomprehensible experience for all (the surviving twin boy, now an old man, breaks down completely, as will nearly every reader). This book goes into my unofficial rank as one of the best reading experiences I've ever had. It tooks me days to shake the feeling that Briony was a part of my life. I was completely transported and I don't think there can be better praise than that.
karl_koala More than 1 year ago
Author Ian McEwan has once again managed to transform simple words into a sophisticated work of art. He manages to create the perfect narration of war, romance, and of course atonement. The book tells the story of Briony Tallis, a young girl coming from a wealthy family and how she notices the flirtation between her older sister Cecilia and Robbie Turner, who is the son of a servant. Briony's childish innocence and wild imagination bring about consequences that no one could have thought of and make Atonement one of the most beautifully written love novels ever. McEwan, genially manages to avoid clichés throughout the story and while the story is beautiful, I could not help but feel a certain angst while Briony sees everything she does and finds everything so awkward and adult-like. What I found truly unique was that most of the relationship that Cecilia and Robbie maintained throughout the novel is by letter and never by physical contact. I found this extremely interesting because it just emphasizes the point that the love between Robbie and Cecilia is so strong that they would go to any lengths just to keep in contact with each other. As the story progresses so do the lives of the characters and Briony, who at the beginning was a young eager writer, learns how to live with the mistake she made and continues writing. I would not like to go so deep into the plot of the story because I do not want to give anything away and most certainly would like to leave everything to the readers interpretation of the story, the characters, and everything the story revolves around. Going on a more general note, I think Ian McEwan has yet again composed a marvelous novel that will not easily be put down. His descriptions of the events are strong and could not be described any other way. I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who likes to read. Of course it would not be fully understood by a younger audience, but any teenager or adult would be more than satisfied with this novel. McEwan is without a doubt one of the great writers of this modern time more specifically focusing on the English aspect of Europe and literature, however this does not limit his words from reaching us all the way in North America and into our minds and hearts.
patterson30 More than 1 year ago
I already had an idea of what the novel would be about having seen previews for the movie. However, I was still shocked when the big crime was committed. The characters are well written and so is the narrative. However, the novel's greatest strengths is it's ending, which is so gut-wrenching and honest that I wanted to scream, cry and curse. Worth the read.