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Atonementby Ian McEwan
Reading Group Guide
On the hottest day of the summer of 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis sees her older sister Cecilia strip off her clothes and plunge into the fountain in the garden of their country house. Watching Cecilia is their housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner, a childhood friend who, along with Briony’s sister, has recently graduated from Cambridge.
By the end of that day the lives of all three will have been changed forever. Robbie and Cecilia will have crossed a boundary they had never before dared to approach and will have become victims of the younger girl’s scheming imagination. And Briony will have committed a dreadful crime, the guilt for which will color her entire life.
In each of his novels Ian McEwan has brilliantly drawn his reader into the intimate lives and situations of his characters. But never before has he worked with so large a canvas: In Atonement he takes the reader from a manor house in England in 1935 to the retreat from Dunkirk in 1941; from the London’s World War II military hospitals to a reunion of the Tallis clan in 1999.
Atonement is Ian McEwan’s finest achievement. Brilliant and utterly enthralling in its depiction of childhood, love and war, England and class, the novel is at its center a profound–and profoundly moving–exploration of shame and forgiveness and the difficulty of absolution.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. In the novel, many references are made to other works of fiction — by Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen — hinting at the theme of fictional narrative shaping life. Did any of the references strike you as particularly apt?
2. How did you feel about Briony’s revelation at the end, and what kind of atonement did you feel had been made?
3. “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.” McEwan wrote this as a commentary on the September 11th events in New York City. How does it relate to this novel in particular?
4. The Daily Telegraph said the writing was so sensuous, “You can’t believe a man wrote this.” Do you agree?
5. 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?
6. 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 kindess, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them at the end”?
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