Atonement

Atonement

by Ian McEwan

Paperback(Reprint)

$12.80 $16.00 Save 20% Current price is $12.8, Original price is $16. You Save 20%. View All Available Formats & Editions
Want it by Wednesday, November 21 Order now and choose Expedited Shipping during checkout.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385721790
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/25/2003
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 14,833
Product dimensions: 5.22(w) x 8.01(h) x 0.79(d)

About the Author

IAN McEWAN has written two collections of stories, First Love, Last Rites and In Between the Sheets, and eight novels, The Cement Garden, The Comfort of Strangers, The Child in Time–winner of the 1987 Whitbread Novel of the Year Award–The Innocent, Black Dogs, The Daydreamer, Enduring Love, and Amsterdam–winner of the 1998 Booker Prize.

Hometown:

Oxford, England

Date of Birth:

June 21, 1948

Place of Birth:

Aldershot, England

Education:

B.A., University of Sussex, 1970; M.A., University of East Anglia, 1971

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

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

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."
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

"…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.)

Reading Group Guide

1. What sort of social and cultural setting does the Tallis house create for the novel? What is the mood of the house, as described in chapter 12? What emotions and impulses are being acted upon or repressed by its inhabitants? How does the careful attention to detail affect the pace of Part One, and what is the effect of the acceleration of plot events as it nears its end?

2. A passion for order, a lively imagination, and a desire for attention seem to be Briony’s strongest traits. In what ways is she still a child? Is her narcissism -- her inability to see things from any point of view but her own -- unusual in a thirteen-year-old? Why does the scene she witnesses at the fountain change her whole perspective on writing? What is the significance of the passage in which she realizes she needs to work from the idea that -- other people are as real as you. And only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they had an equal value? Do her actions bear this out?

3. What kind of a person is Emily Tallis? Why does McEwan decide not to have Jack Tallis make an appearance in the story? Who, if anyone, is the moral authority in this family? What is the parents’ relationship to Robbie Turner, and why does Emily pursue his conviction with such single-mindedness?

4. What happens between Robbie and Cecilia at the fountain? What symbolic role does Uncle Clem’s precious vase play in the novel? Is it significant that the vase is glued together by Cecilia, and broken finally during the war by Betty as she readies the house to accept evacuees?

5. Having read Robbie’s note to Cecilia, Briony thinks about its implications for her new idea of herself as a writer: No more princesses! . . . With the letter, something elemental, brutal, perhaps even criminal had been introduced, some principle of darkness, and even in her excitement over the possibilities, she did not doubt that her sister was in some way threatened and would need her help. Why is Robbie’s uncensored letter so offensive within the social context in which it is read? Why is Cecilia not offended by it?

6. The scene in the library is one of the most provocative and moving descriptions of sex in recent fiction. How does the fact that it is narrated from Robbie’s point of view affect how the reader feels about what happens to him shortly afterwards? Is it understandable that Briony, looking on, perceives this act of love as an act of violence?

7. Why does Briony stick to her story with such unwavering commitment? Does she act entirely in error in a situation she is not old enough to understand, or does she act, in part, on an impulse of malice, revenge, or self-importance? At what point does she develop the empathy to realize what she has done to Cecilia and Robbie?

8. How does Leon, with his life of agreeable nullity, compare with Robbie in terms of honor, intelligence, and ambition? What are the qualities that make Robbie such an effective romantic hero? What are the ironies inherent in the comparative situations of the three young men present Leon, Paul Marshall, and Robbie?

9. Lola has a critical role in the story’s plot. What are her motivations? Why does she tell Briony that her brothers caused the marks on her wrists and arms? Why does she allow Briony to take over her story when she is attacked later in the evening? Why does Briony decide not to confront Lola and Paul Marshall at their wedding five years later?

10. The novel’s epigraph is taken from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, in which a naïve young woman, caught up in fantasies from the Gothic fiction she loves to read, imagines that her host in an English country house is a villain. In Austen’s novel Catherine Norland’s mistakes are comical and have no serious outcome, while in Atonement, Briony’s fantasies have tragic effects upon those around her. What is McEwan implying about the power of the imagination, and its potential for harm when unleashed into the social world? Is he suggesting, by extension, that Hitler’s pathological imagination was a driving force behind World War II?

11. In McEwan’s earlier novel Black Dogs, one of the main characters comes to a realization about World War II. He thinks about the recently concluded war not as a historical, geopolitical fact but as a multiplicity, a near-infinity of private sorrows, as a boundless grief minutely subdivided without diminishment among individuals who covered the continent like dust, like spores whose separate identities would remain unknown, and whose totality showed more sadness than anyone could ever begin to comprehend. Does McEwan intend his readers to experience the war similarly in Atonement? What aspects of Atonement make it so powerful as a war novel? What details heighten the emotional impact in the scenes of the Dunkirk retreat and Briony’s experience at the military hospital?

12. When Robbie, Mace, and Nettle reach the beach at Dunkirk, they intervene in an attack on an RAF man who has become a scapegoat for the soldiers’ sense of betrayal and rage. As in many of his previous novels, McEwan is interested in aggressive human impulses that spin out of control. How does this act of group violence relate to the moral problems that war creates for soldiers, and the events Robbie feels guilty about as he falls asleep at Bray Dunes?

13. About changing the fates of Robbie and Cecilia in her final version of the book, Briony says, "Who would want to believe that the young lovers never met again, never fulfilled their love? Who would want to believe that, except in the service of the bleakest realism?" McEwan’s Atonement has two endings -- one in which the fantasy of love is fulfilled, and one in which that fantasy is stripped away. What is the emotional effect of this double ending? Is Briony right in thinking that it isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them at the end?

14. Why does McEwan return to the novel’s opening with the long-delayed performance of The Trials of Arabella, Briony’s youthful contribution to the optimistic genre of Shakespearean comedy? What sort of closure is this in the context of Briony’s career? What is the significance of the fact that Briony is suffering from vascular dementia, which will result in the loss of her memory, and the loss of her identity?

15. In her letters to Robbie, Cecilia quotes from W. H. Auden’s 1939 poem, "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," which includes the line, "Poetry makes nothing happen." In part, the novel explores the question of whether the writing of fiction is not much more than the construction of elaborate entertainments -- an indulgence in imaginative play -- or whether fiction can bear witness to life and to history, telling its own serious truths. Is Briony’s novel effective, in her own conscience, as an act of atonement? Does the completed novel compel the reader to forgive her?

Interviews

An Interview with Ian McEwan

Barnes & Noble.com: Have you noticed a large difference between British and American audiences in the reception of your books?

Ian McEwan: Not really. I mean, I suppose I'm far better known here [in England] than in the States, and [my books are] studied at school here, and have been for many years. Kids doing their high school reading exams often end up writing about The Child in Time and, more recently, Enduring Love, and I think, apparently, Atonement is going to be absorbed into the school curriculum as well. [In England], I meet people who had to read me at school 12 years ago and have then remained faithful ever since. But my readership in the States, as I experience it through giving readings in bookshops -- it always surprises me that the people I'm reading to have been reading me for so long. But not because they were made to at school. And they actually know my stuff in ways that I find incredibly flattering. But it's not a mass audience. It's a sort of educated, book-loving...bookstore-haunting kind of readership.

BN.com: Your last book was Amsterdam, and that was very different in style. Could you compare the experiences of writing these books?

IM: I was a little cautious after Amsterdam because I had read in so many places that anyone who wins the Booker Prize never goes on to write a decent novel. So, there was a bit of "Watch me, you bastards..." about this. I was very careful. Amsterdam itself was much more like a holiday written straight after the intensity of finishing Enduring Love, and it was really kind of a jeu d'esprit. It was a novel that I sketched out on the back of an envelope around about the time I was halfway through Enduring Love, and it's the only time I've only started a novel with one just finished behind me. Usually I have to let some life go by, I have to live through my own changes, become slightly a different person.

This was very much the case with finishing Amsterdam and starting Atonement. I spent a year just writing little sketches, going for long walks, sitting with my feet up on the radiator staring out the window, writing random pretend-openings of books I knew I'd never continue. Turning down loads of writing commissions, and yet actually not producing anything, and feeling vaguely guilty for it -- just waiting. After about 15 months, I found I'd written a couple of paragraphs which I knew had taken me into the novel I was going to write. And it was just this girl stepping into the room with a bunch of wildflowers. The room has a certain kind of elegance, there's a young man outside she wants to see -- but doesn't want to see -- and there is a vase that she is looking for on a low table by a french window. And I don't know why, really, and I certainly didn't know why at the time, but I thought, This is a toehold for me. This is the beginning of whatever it is I'm going to write.

BN.com: From this first idea, how did Atonement evolve?

IM: Well, I'd had a number of separate ambitions and thoughts about possible novels. Graham Greene has a rather good phrase for things that you carry around in your mind. He used to call them "pools" -- like a swimming pool, or like a spring. And the work of starting or even continuing a novel was like digging trenches between these pools. The pools were, in his terms, sort of the inspired scenes. Well, I'm not sure that I'd call mine so much as "inspired"; they were just sort of vague ambitions. One of them was to write a love story. I had this thought as to whether it was possible, at the end of the 20th century, for the literary novel to explore the subject of love in quite the way it was automatically a subject in the 19th century. I mean, have we wrapped ourselves in so much irony and self-reference that we can no longer simply tell a love story?

I'd also, for many years, been very drawn to the underlying idea of Jane Austen's novel Northanger Abbey in which a young woman's reading of gothic novels causes her to misunderstand everything around her. And I've often thought that I would rather like someone with imagination to cause some sort of havoc.

I suppose, too -- people often say to me, well, you've written about children so much in your fiction. And I would say, have I really? There's a disappeared child in A Child in Time, and there are some grotesques in my short stories, and The Cement Garden is many, many years ago. I thought I'd never really seriously immersed myself properly in trying to make a fully rounded character out of a child, allowing myself all the resources of a complex adult vocabulary to describe a child's feelings. Which is what James does in What Maisie Knew. But having all those sort of vague ambitions -- I didn't even know that those various thoughts belonged in the same novel. I mean, I didn't know it until I finished, really.

BN.com: What are you reading now?

IM: Well, I read Embers, that Hungarian novel, by Marai, which I really loved. I'm rereading, because my son is doing it for his exams, The Lord of the Flies. I'm reading a book about scientific equations, which makes a case that their power is in their beauty, not only in their predictive qualities. It Must Be Beautiful: Great Equations of Modern Science. I'm reading some poetry, I'm about to reread Henry IV, Part One again, just to be able to engage my son, who is a somewhat reluctant reader and has got to do some exams on these subjects.

BN.com: You said you usually take some time to become a slightly different person between novels. Looking through your earlier books, this personal evolution is evident -- you're definitely not an author who repeats himself. Where do you find yourself now?

IM: Well, I mean, I'm back in that stage, now. I'm not writing. I've written a couple of lectures, one on Edmund Wilson, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. You sort of have to pretend each novel is your first. And there is always an element of rebirth about it. You can't go back, you can't do the same thing again. It often takes a while -- and I know many novelists say this -- for the echoes to die away of the thing you started. Often you find in the early months other ideas come, and you realize they're just other unwritten chapters to the book you've just finished, really.

Introduction

NATIONAL BESTSELLER
Booker Prize Finalist

The New York Times Book Review EDITORS’ CHOICE
and a Washington Post, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Chronicle BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR

“A beautiful and majestic fictional panorama.” —John Updike, The New Yorker

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Ian McEwan’s international bestseller Atonement.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

Atonement 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 652 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. Also...it 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.