On an English country estate in the jittery, gilded era between the two great wars, two young people stand in the summer's heat, arguing by an ancient fountain. Cecilia is the daughter of the household, and Robbie is the cleaning woman's son, a brilliant boy whose Cambridge education has been benevolently financed by Cecilia's father. During their quarrel, the two manage to break a valuable porcelain vase, and in a fury largely engendered by her unacknowledged feelings for the young man, Cecilia strips off her clothes, leaps into the fountain and retrieves the fragments. It is a dazzling moment, full of beauty and ruin, lust and innocence, so highly charged that it's no wonder Cecilia's little sister, Briony, observing unseen from a window, feels a sense of menace. She concludes that Robbie has compelled her sister to do something shameful. This assumption, when combined with later events, brings disaster not simply to the two young people who are discovering themselves to be lovers, but to everyone else in the well-intentioned, prosperous family.
This is a crucial scene in the latest, luminous novel by Ian McEwan. As happens often with poetry, but much more rarely with novels, the book creates a curiously satisfying conflict of emotions. The pain and chaos of events are leavened by the delight of technical mastery. There is pleasure in having even our sorrows named with such precision. Sentences turn on a dime, or rather on an unexpected adjective, as when a litigious couple is described as "defending their good names with a most expensive ferocity."
Consider the description of the room of twelve-year-old Briony. In a slovenly household, it is an oasis of tidiness. Ona broad windowsill is set out a treasured model farm, consisting "of the usual animals, but all facing one way—towards their owner—as if about to break into song." The attentive air of this little army of animals perfectly catches the vanity of childhood, when it seems only proper and desirable to have universal attention focused on oneself.
The little barnyard world so neatly deployed is also emblematic of the slightly bigger world of the Tallis' estate, which has both the pleasing quality of a miniature and an innocent vanity, a smugness in the contentment so shortly to be swept away. McEwan is well aware of this, as when he describes the way Briony perceives that "writing stories not only involved secrecy, it also gave her all the pleasures of miniaturisation. A world could be made in five pages, and one that was more pleasing than a model farm."
What lies beyond that safe, well-controlled realm shows up in the novel's second half. Just as the first portion of the novel begins with the emblematic breaking of the vase, the second commences with a hallucinatory image of a child's smooth, severed leg caught in the branches of a tree. Robbie, enrolled as a private in the British Army, bears witness to such atrocities. In France during World War II, he participates in the hasty retreat that culminates with the evacuation at Dunkirk. Cecilia, a nurse in a veterans hospital in London, is coping with a parallel universe of brutality and absurdity, rigor and privation.
This latest work by McEwan is no less intricate than 1987's The Child in Time and 1998's Amsterdam, two of his previous eight novels that won the Whitbread Prize and the Booker Prize, respectively. In sensibility the world of Atonement is achingly reminiscent of that created by Richard Hughes in his classic novels, A High Wind in Jamaica and The Fox in the Attic. There is the same sharply detailed delight in life and the same dismaying awareness of how easily the treasures of normalcy can be lost. In both men's work, there is a grave acknowledgment that a child's moral sense and judgment are vastly different from an adult's—and that the consequences of this difference can be enormous. But Hughes, writing fifty years ago, made no sign that he, or his narrator, was aware of the reader's steady gaze. McEwan offers an additional challenge. He makes us ache for the young lovers to be reunited, and Briony—whom we discover is the narrator— seems to grant our wish. But does she?
The novel closes with an event postponed for sixty years. As in life, recurrence and familiar places give the narrator a sort of yardstick to gauge the changes in herself. Meanwhile, readers following a story over decades arrive at an apparent conclusion, then see the conclusion neatly undone, all the shining details exposed as invention, all replaced with circumstantial evidence. Clarity has bred not certainty but a sudden, rueful awareness of our own expectations, and of our nature as revealed in what we hope for.
This haunting novel, which just failed to win the Booker this year, is at once McEwan at his most closely observed and psychologically penetrating, and his most sweeping and expansive. It is in effect two, or even three, books in one, all masterfully crafted. The first part ushers us into a domestic crisis that becomes a crime story centered around an event that changes the lives of half a dozen people in an upper-middle-class country home on a hot English summer's day in 1935. Young Briony Tallis, a hyperimaginative 13-year-old who sees her older sister, Cecilia, mysteriously involved with their neighbor Robbie Turner, a fellow Cambridge student subsidized by the Tallis family, points a finger at Robbie when her young cousin is assaulted in the grounds that night; on her testimony alone, Robbie is jailed. The second part of the book moves forward five years to focus on Robbie, now freed and part of the British Army that was cornered and eventually evacuated by a fleet of small boats at Dunkirk during the early days of WWII. This is an astonishingly imagined fresco that bares the full anguish of what Britain in later years came to see as a kind of victory. In the third part, Briony becomes a nurse amid wonderfully observed scenes of London as the nation mobilizes. No, she doesn't have Robbie as a patient, but she begins to come to terms with what she has done and offers to make amends to him and Cecilia, now together as lovers. In an ironic epilogue that is yet another coup de theatre, McEwan offers Briony as an elderly novelist today, revisiting her past in fact and fancy and contributing a moving windup to the sustained flight of a deeply novelistic imagination. With each book McEwan ranges wider, and his powers have never been more fully in evidence than here. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
This book is currently number one in the paperback bestseller list, so I'm sure most of you are familiar with it. The question is whether YAs would enjoy reading the book. The main character is 13 years old as the novel begins, in England, in 1935. She is an expressive child, who feels a lot but doesn't always understand the feelings, and is overwhelmed by them. Class differences are a major element of the theme and plot. Briony, the girl, tells a blatant lie, accusing a young man of rape. This results in his imprisonment and disgrace. It also destroys the happiness of Briony's older sister, who loves the accused man. The next section of the book takes place during the war. Briony is a young woman now, trying to atone for her sin, but no apologies are good enough. The horrors of the war and its carnage perhaps put her crime into some lesser category, but not for the accused man and his beloved, whose happiness has been needlessly destroyed by the careless child. The last section of the book is many years later, as Briony is a successful playwright, approaching old age, when again she is faced with the reality of how her lie affected others. There is a certain irony in the final pages. McEwan has won many prizes for this book. It was a Booker Prize finalist in the U.K. and has been selected as a best book of the year by most major publications in the U.S.: The New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and others. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Random House, Anchor, 350p.,
The major events of Booker Prize winner McEwan's new novel occur one day in the summer of 1935. Briony Tallis, a precocious 13-year-old with an overactive imagination, witnesses an incident between Cecilia, her older sister, and Robbie Turner, son of the Tallis family's charwoman. Already startled by the sexual overtones of what she has seen, she is completely shocked that evening when she surreptitiously reads a suggestive note Robbie has mistakenly sent Cecilia. It then becomes easy for her to believe that the shadowy figure who assaults her cousin Lola late that night is Robbie. Briony's testimony sends Robbie to prison and, through an early release, into the army on the eve of World War II. Gradually understanding what she has done, Briony seeks atonement first through a career in nursing and then through writing, with the novel itself framed as a literary confession it has taken her a lifetime to write. Moving deftly between styles, this is a compelling exploration of guilt and the struggle for forgiveness. Recommended for most public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/01.] Lawrence Rungren, Merrimack Valley Lib. Consortium, Andover, MA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Adult/High School-Set during the seemingly idyllic summer of 1935 at the country estate of the Tallis family, the first section of this thought-provoking novel ambles through one scorchingly hot day that changes the lives of almost everyone present. The catalyst is overly imaginative 13-year-old Briony, who accuses Robbie, her sister's childhood friend and their housemaid's son, of raping her cousin Lola. The young man is sent to prison and Cecilia, heartbroken, abandons her family and becomes a nursing sister in London. In the second part, McEwan vividly describes another single day, this time Robbie's experiences during the ignominious British retreat to Dunkirk early in World War II. Finally, readers meet Briony again, now a nursing student. She is aware that she might have been wrong that day five years earlier and begins to seek atonement, having clearly ruined two lives. In a story within a story, McEwan brilliantly engages readers in a tour de force of what ifs and might have beens until they begin to wonder what actually happened. The story is compelling, the characters well drawn and engaging, and the outcome is almost always in doubt. The descriptions of the retreat and the subsequent hospitalization of the soldiers are grim and realistic. Readers are spared little, yet the journey is worth the observed pain and distress. Well-read teens will find much to think about in this novel.-Susan H. Woodcock, Chantilly Regional Library, VA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
McEwan's latest, both powerful and equisite, considers the making of a writer, the dangers and rewards of imagination, and the juncture between innocence and awareness, all set against the late afternoon of an England soon to disappear.
"McEwan's Atonement…truly dazzles, proving to be as much about the art and morality of writing as it is about the past…. The middle section of Atonement, the two vividly realized set pieces of Robbie's trek to the Channel and Briony's experiences with the wounded evacuees of Dunkirk, would alone have made an outstanding novel…. There is wonderful writing throughout as McEwan weaves his many themes — the accidents of contingency, the sins of absent fathers, class oppression into his narrative, and in a magical love scene."
—Brian Bethune, Maclean’s
"…Atonement is a deliriously great read, but more than that it is a great book.… There are characters you follow with breathless anxiety; a plot worthy of a top-drawer suspense novelist, complete with jolting reversals; language that unspools seemingly effortlessly, yet leaves a minefield of still-to-be-detonated nouns and verbs…. rife with…unforgettable tableaux…."
—The Globe and Mail
"What a joy it is to read a book that shocks one into remembering just how high one's literary standards should be.… a tour de force by one of England's best novelists…. Atonement is a spectacular book; as good a novel and more satisfying… than anything McEwan has written….sublimely written narrative…. The Dunkirk passage is a stupendous piece of writing, a set piece that could easily stand on its own.… "
—Noah Richler, National Post
"I can’t imagine many readers who won’t find it compelling from beginning to end…. McEwan has dealt with major themes before in his novels, but never at this length and with this narrative richness. With Atonement he has staked a convincing claim to be the finest of all that brilliantly talented crew of British novelists, including Margaret Drabble, Martin Amis and Graham Swift, who rose to prominence in the 1980s."
—Phillip Marchand, The Toronto Star
"Atonement has power and stature and is compulsively readable."
—The Gazette (Montreal)
"It is difficult to imagine how the book might be bettered. Bold in its intentions and flawlessly executed, Atonement is one of the rare novels to strike a balance between 'old-fashioned' storytelling and a postmodern exploration of the process of literary creation. Atonement is a tremendous achievement, a rich demonstration of McEwan’s gifts as a storyteller."
—The Vancouver Sun
"Ian McEwan’s writing is so vivid it can make your eyes ache. But you can’t look less closely or put the book down. Such is McEwan’s growing strength. Atonement is exacting and poetic in detail as well as generous with wry, often heart-rending insight. Each character is richly portrayed and fully realized, from their subtlest thoughts and motivations to their period dress and surroundings. Atonement sustains, rewards and surprises right up to its final page."
"With a clear prose style and a humming sense of tension throughout, Atonement is both illuminating and entertaining. McEwan believes in love and goodness, but he is far more interested in good’s contrary, whether it is evil or mere psychological weakness. There may be atonement for the past, but there is never redemption."
—The Edmonton Journal
"Class conflict, war and the responsibilities of the artist are among the themes of Atonement, but it is Ian McEwan’s writing that makes this novel one of his best: lush and langorous in the long first section, understated and precise in the latter two."
—The Ottawa Citizen
"…a classic McEwan performance, combining an intense forward narrative thrust with the sharpness of observation and description that has made him this country’s unrivalled literary giant."
—The Independent (U.K.)
"Atonement [is] McEwan's best novel, so far, his masterpiece…. Atonement is...a meditation on the impulse of storytelling itself, on the wish to give shape to experience which deceives no less than it illuminates."
—Evening Standard (U.K.)
"The close-up verdict will be simple enough: Atonement is a magnificent novel, shaped and paced with awesome confidence and eloquence; as searching an account of error, shame and reparation as any in modern fiction…. The bigger picture would have to set it within the long sweep of a literary canon. With a lordly self-consciousness, McEwan here blends his own climate into the weather-pattern of classic English fiction. Atonement is not a modest work; but then (to distort Churchill on Attlee), it has an awful lot to be immodest about."
—The Independent (U.K.)