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Synopses & Reviews
The novel opens on a sweltering summer day in 1935 at the Tallis familys 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 parents marital breakup — Leons 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 Brionys play arent going well; her cousin Lola has stolen the starring role, the twin boys cant 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 Hitlers 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 Londons 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 McEwans 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.
About the Author
“It caused me a lot of anxiety,” McEwan has said of this, his ninth novel, which he had been waiting years to write. He is a careful writer, with a tendency to worry about how his books will turn out. This one emerged slowly; only after 14 months of ‘doodling did he have a paragraph and a half with which to begin the book, now the start of the second chapter: Cecilia standing in the doorway with a bunch of flowers, and Robbie outside.
McEwan likes to take a particularly potent, decisive event bringing the protagonists together — the snatching of a three-year-old girl in The Child In Time, a tragic ballooning incident at the start of Enduring Love -- and let the emotions develop from there. Atonement is his most deeply emotional book to date, and he is pleased that it turned out a moving love story; he has more often been seen as a master of the gruesome, the disturbing and the morbid after his early novels in the 1970s. His first collection of stories, First Love, Last Rites, was published in 1975 and immediately won him the nickname Ian Macabre. The sense of menace is present from the beginning of his latest novel, and darkness continues through the 1940 sections, but there is a warmth not usually associated with McEwans work. “At my age,” he says, “there is an obligation to celebrate the good things in life.”
He found his own way towards a love of fiction; there werent many books at home when he was growing up. His father was an Army NCO, and the family moved from London at times to North Germany, North Africa, and Singapore, where as a teenager he would find himself engrossed in novels by Iris Murdoch and Graham Greene. Attending a state-run boarding school, he was the first in his family to get a university education; he was also the first applicant to the creative writing course run by Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson at the University of East Anglia. Now in his mid-fifties, he has published nine novels and two books of short stories. He lives in Oxford with his two sons.
His father, who died in 1996, was a dispatch rider with the Highland Light Infantry and was wounded by shrapnel in both legs during the retreat from Dunkirk; McEwan always knew he would write about it, and he is sorry he wasnt able to show this novel to his father, who became obsessed with his experiences at Dunkirk in his last years. “He found another man wounded in both arms and together they managed to ride a Harley-Davidson to safety.” The authors mother, who worked as a cleaning lady, is also present in places in the book; she suffers from vascular dementia, a disease that erases the memory, which afflicts Briony late in life.
McEwan feels Briony is the best fictional character he has created yet. Her mistake in telling a lie is the turning point that pulls her from the childhood world of innocence, a theme he has often touched upon. Her shaky claim provides a focus for the class prejudices of her elders, and becomes destructive. “I was haunted by the witch-hunts of the recovered memory syndrome in the Eighties and Nineties. Children were prompted by leading questions from earnest social workers and court officials.” The situation he created allowed him to address this in an oblique way.
Atonement is about storytelling, and the dangers of applying fictional form to real life, of imposing order and drama on lifes confusions; as the Financial Times put it, “the power of narrative to create and manipulate truth”. If McEwan likes to play with perspective and describe the same experience from several points of view, this is partly because he feels novels are “about showing the possibility of what it is like to be someone else.” Unlike any other form of art, novels give us the opportunity to get inside someone elses head and try to understand them. “Other people are as alive as you are. Cruelty is a failure of imagination.”
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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