Atonement by Ian McewanAtonement by Ian Mcewan


byIan Mcewan

Mass Market Paperback | November 27, 2007

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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.
“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 sta...
Title:AtonementFormat:Mass Market PaperbackDimensions:496 pages, 6.86 × 4.23 × 1.09 inPublished:November 27, 2007Publisher:Knopf CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:1400025559

ISBN - 13:9781400025558


Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of my Favourite This book easily slipped into my top 10 favourite books. From Briony's sharp imagination to Cecilia's cynic calm, this family's tale will stay with you for a long time. It's poignant and realistic and I would read it again and again.
Date published: 2017-03-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The first GREAT 21st century novel I like to think that I have a good grasp on most of the truly great novels written during my lifetime, and with some confidence I can say Ian McEwan's Atonement -- published in 2001 -- will probably go down as the best novel of the past decade. While a surprise visit from the girlfriend interrupted my normal reading habits for a weekend, it also added about seven novels to my TBR list as there were a few books I couldn't pass up at the used bookstore and Chapters, one of which was a cheap copy of Atonement. I hadn't planned on even reading it, as I picked up McEwan's Saturday not long ago. However, the fact that my girlfriend had already read the book and said I should try it led me to begin reading it this past week, and I am elated that I chose to do so. First off, McEwan's writing here is GORGEOUS. Not saying things I have been reading have been necessarily lacking in that regard, but there's a point when after reading so much of a certain author, you begin to know what to expect. The prose here caught me off-guard: I felt that this would be a great book -- shortlisted for the Booker, an incredible amount of buzz -- but I was excited at just how good it truly was. It reads like a great 19th century novel -- rich character development, an epic story, depth. Not a novel to pass up. If it had been published decades ago it would be hailed as a classic, but the fact that it was published just 9 years ago proves that literature is far from dead. Easy novel to recommend; an essential read.
Date published: 2010-07-22
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Not bad The storyline and book were quite good, but it took a lot for me to get into the book itself. I kept taking breaks from the book because I couldn't just sit there and read a story front to back that jumps from view to view. However, I agree with most others that it was well written and worth reading it if you're interested in a slightly romantic twist on history.
Date published: 2009-05-25
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Worth your time When I first picked this book up to read, I couldn't get myself past the first few chapters. The second time I picked it up, a year later as a traveler with nothing else to read, I forced myself to get through it and ended up really enjoying it. The beginning is tough to get through but for me that was due to reading the back cover and seeing movie trailers that left me wanted to get straight to the climax.
Date published: 2009-05-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Magnificent This book was amazing. So well written. From the first page of the book i was completely absorbed in the book and could not put it down. It was never slow, and always kept moving. I highly recommend this book. One of my favourites.
Date published: 2009-04-20
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Booker Prize 2001: Just Not Good Enough Atonement found itself in, perhaps, the strongest Booker Prize year of them all, so it's no surprise that Ian McEwan failed to pick up his second prize. David Mitchell's Number 9 Dream, Rachel Seiffert's The Dark Room, Ali Smith's Hotel World and Andrew Miller's Oxygen (the weakest of the lot, which is saying something) were all strong contenders for the prize, and some of them were even better than McEwan's story of war bound love and betrayal. The travesty is that Peter Carey beat McEwan with The True History of the Kelly Gang rather than Mitchell or Seiffert or Smith. Regardless, Atonement is one hell of a book. The multiple perspectives, the lies, the fancy, the truth, the life, the sensuality, the suffering, the echoes of Brideshead Revisted, they all combined to make an experience that won't let me go. It took three tries to get past Briony's production of her play, but once I made it past her spoiled petulance, I couldn't stop reading Atonement until I was through. And Briony's final, fading declaration of truth actually made me cry. What stands out for me about Atonement is that nothing really stands out. It was a novel of immersion, like Cecilia diving for the broken shard of vase, or Robbie cocooned by darkness, rotting internally from a gut shot, or Cecilia drowning in a bombed out subway station, or the French soldier buried in his impending death, mistaking Briony for his lover. It is all there. All at once. And nothing overpowers the others. It is all powerful. Now...if this is the way I feel about Atonement...just imagine how I feel about Number 9 Dream, The Dark Room and Hotel World. 2001 was a very good year.
Date published: 2009-04-04
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Overly descriptive, boring Mcewan is a good writer, don't get me wrong. It had great parts but was slow and boring at times. Not one of my favourites.
Date published: 2009-03-28
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Atonement “Atonement” by Ian McEwan is a beautifully written book, with the imagery being so vivid that the reader can clearly see in their mind what is happening in the book. Young Briony Tallis witnesses an intimate moment between her sister Cecilia and the son of a servant, Robbie Turner. Briony has a passion for writing and an imagination that sees what it wants to see. Her misunderstanding of this flirtatious moment between her sister and Robbie Turner has devastating consequences that the reader follows through the battle of World War II and to the close of the twentieth century. I had trouble liking this book, it is well praised for its literary genius and it is a gorgeous read, but I did not bond with any of the characters. Actually the only character that really interested me was Briony, but her story is short changed. Instead the story focuses on the two lovers, Cecilia and Robbie and their devastating separation. It seems hard to believe that Cecilia and Robbie could be so deeply in love and committed to each other throughout war and hell after just spending one-half of a day realizing that they loved each other before they are separated. Their encounter in the library seems more lustful then full of love. The ending is one part of the book that I really enjoyed, it focused on Briony and it throws a realistic twist into the whole book. Bring on more Briony! This book should be read just for the writing style and the vividness of the word that Ian McEwan is able to produce.
Date published: 2009-03-20
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Ok...So? Yeah it was nice This is a weird book. Not the one I am used to but still love it! There's a lot of things I didn't like, for instance nothing actually happend, the characters are doing nothing; they just think. Also, it's very well described and bla blah but I mean maybe it was a little too much, not like I care about the sun or whatever. Last, I don't see the atonement at all and the end was so purposeless, I was very disappointed about it. But I do love it.... I don't know why, must be the story which is so romantic and well.... I don't know! I just really like this book!
Date published: 2009-03-14
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Not too bad I actually saw the movie before I read this book and found it to be good, but not great. Turns out the book is really no different and the movie is quite faithful, which I always like to see. I guess for me the reason that I didn't love the book is that I don't see any actual atonement in it. It was a little frustrating for sure. I also found that even though I knew what was coming, it took forever to get there in the book. It's slow to get going, but good once you get there.
Date published: 2009-02-11
Rated 1 out of 5 by from boring This book started off boring and I'm halfway through and it's still boring. It had a few decent parts but overall this is a very slow paced, boring book that just focuses on describing characters and no real action or anything interesting goes on until the middle and then even so, it dies down.
Date published: 2009-01-23
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Heartbreaking Story Set in the 1930's and 40's, Atonement is the story of a young girl, Briony Tallis, whose naiveté and imagination lead her to make a devastating mistake. Her actions and accusations rip apart a budding romance between her older sister Cecila and a youngman, Robbie. Coupled with the onslaught of World War 2, Briony's actions have disastrous consequences. I believe one may be mislead into thinking this is a typical love story about two lovers being ripped apart by war. In actuality, not very much of the novel focuses on WWII - although the descriptions of the English retreat to Dunkirk were both astounding and disturbing. McEwan clearly did his research on this sad chapter of the war and also on the Nightingale order of nurses. While some may find this book 'wordy' or overly descriptive, I enjoyed McEwan's attention to detail and the unique, heartbreaking story.
Date published: 2008-12-23
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great story, but not a great ending I enjoyed reading Atonement by Ian McEwan because it kept me interested and so was completed fairly quickly. The beginning was interesting as well, unlike what other reviewers mentioned, because it gave me an idea of how Briony thought and how the characters' lives were. Some parts were boring, such as when Emily was the main focus, but every novel has boring parts. I wish the ending was better, because I wanted to know more about what happened to certain characters. In the summer of 1935, Briony Tallis, 11, sees her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner near the fountain and then later in the library, and misinterprets what actually occurred. Because Briony is young and does not know much about the world, she blames Robbie for a serious crime. --------CONTAINS SPOILERS-------- Robbie is arrested and taken to war as a solider, and Cecilia is left waiting. ------------------------------------------------ Atonement is a story about Briony trying to atone for her sins, when she understands what truly happened. Many different characters are focused on, but it is mainly about Briony and there is also a big piece on Robbie. Atonement gives you a better understanding of what difficulties soldiers had to endure and what occurred in the hospitals during WW2. Now, I will finally complete Atonement the movie, and all of the parts that were once unclear, will actually make sense to me. Characters: Uncle Clem: Jack’s only brother Jack Tallis: Briony’s father Emily Tallis: Briony’ mother Leon Tallis: Briony’s older brother Cecilia Tallis: Briony’s older sister Briony Tallis Paul Marshall: Leon’s friend Hermione Quincey: Emily Tallis’s younger sister Lola Quincey: Briony’s cousin Pierrot Quincey: Briony’s cousin; Jackson’s twin Jackson Quincey: Briony’s cousin; Pierrot’s twin Earnest Turner: Grace’s husband Grace Turner: the cleaning lady that works for the Tallis’ Robbie Turner: went to the same school as Cecilia
Date published: 2008-07-08
Rated 1 out of 5 by from I felt cheated At the end we learn the book is not written in the third person but in the first. You can't do that! The first person cannot pretend to get into the minds of others without admitting to be writing a novel. This puts a great strain on the suspension of disbelief necessary for all fiction. To top it off our heroine/writer allows the reader to choose alternate endings, leading us to ask what really happened. And then insults us: "I know there's always a certain kind of reader who will be compelled to ask, But what REALLY happened?" Well, there's always a certain kind of writer who requires gimickry to propel creaky plots. Honestly people, there are many more better writers out there.
Date published: 2008-06-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Incredible I am still shaking my head at just how good this story is. I have read Ian's novel, "Amsterdam," which won the Booker, but I didn't like it. So I was very surprised by this. It truly is masterfully written, the way he treats his characters and his readers. This novel has so much to say about novelists and the act of writing, as well as forgiveness and sincerity.
Date published: 2008-05-30
Rated 3 out of 5 by from On The Fence For all the hype there is around this book, it didn't really live up to its expectations. (For me, anyway). The story was good enough, and it was certainly sad and beautiful at times, but you really have to push yourself through the first half of the book to reach those sad and beautiful moments. I have yet to see the movie, but since the book is usually better, I'm not sure if I want to.
Date published: 2008-05-15
Rated 3 out of 5 by from People seem to love it or hate it. I'm sort of in the middle. It had been so highly recommended to me that I had great expectations. Then I started it. The first part of the book - set one day in 1935 when Briony sees things as a child and misinterprets things - took a full half of the book. And that half seemed to drag on forever. It was soo descriptive. And the relationships all seemed so convoluted - people taking great exceptions to innocuous comments and behaviours. Perhaps 1935 was like this, with all its social mores but I'm glad I don't have to read about it. Plus, the vocabulary! I'm well educated and well read but I've never had to deal with so many words I've never seen before and didn't know the meanings too. But then I got into the second half of the book - the war and we find out what has happened to these characters. My interest level picked up quite a bit. A little more action and an interesting plot line helped the second half of the book. And I really enjoyed the part at the end set in 1999 when we learn more about Briony and the atonement that she attempted. So I ended up liking it but not loving it. I wish I could have edited the first half of the book by 100 pages (I'm sure I would have lost nothing). I understand where both sides are coming from - I understand why some love it but I won't really being recommending it to tons of people - I'd have to know their reading habits pretty well first. I am excited to see the movie and see it commands the screen better than it did a book.
Date published: 2008-05-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Profoundly Sad Book I wanted to make sure I read Atonement before I saw the movie because the book is always so much richer than the adaptation for the screen. I found this book a bit slow going for about the first one hundred pages but then the story started the develop and I found it much more interesting. In the end, I found this to be a profoundly sad book. I suppose a happy ending isn’t always realistic and this one did not offer that simple solution to complicated lives. I did enjoy this book but felt such a feeling of loss at the end that I needed to seek out something much lighter to read next. I am looking forward to the movie in seeing what parts are true to the book and what parts are changed. The writing style of Ian McEwan is detailed and lyrical. The detail in the novel gave it a beauty that surpassed the ending.
Date published: 2008-05-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Beautiful and Poignant This book is so linguistically perfect, it made me feel like I was standing in the presence of greatness as I devoured it. I have seen the movie, and I cannot recall a signal instance when a book and film ran more similar lines to one another. There is an excellence to this book, a certain grace that leaves the reader feeling something akin to bathing in cleansing waters. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2008-03-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Sorry guys.... Sorry guys, but this really is one for the gals. If you love romance and want to embrace life OR if you're feeling like your life sucks and you need a really good cry...this is the book for you. It fulfills are the reguirements that we yearn for. Love lost, love found, family betrayal, etc., etc. - all based on the misunderstanding of a creative, exuberant young girl. This book paints beautiful, wonderous and dangerous times that are so vivid and rich you can hear your heart thumping and feel a lump in your throat with every turn of the page. What more could one ask for?
Date published: 2008-01-27
Rated 3 out of 5 by from So So It wasn't too bad once I got into it a little. I found it hard to connect with the characters though and a little verbose at times
Date published: 2008-01-19

Read from the Book

CHAPTER ONEThe 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 the end, 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?From the Hardcover edition.

Bookclub 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” [p. 38]? 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” [pp. 106–7]. 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” [p. 103], 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 [see pp. 109–13]? Why does she allow Briony to take over her story when she is attacked later in the evening [see pp. 153–60]? 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” [Black Dogs, p. 140]. 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?” [p. 350] 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” [p. 351]?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?

Editorial Reviews

"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.)From the Trade Paperback edition.