2002 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction
2001 Booker Prize Shortlist
A young girl sees her older sister and a man in a situation she doesn't understand, and subsequently makes an accusation that changes the course of all three lives. This is a study of a life-long search for forgiveness and atonement. McEwan is at his best here. An amazing and excellent book! Recommended By Dianah H., Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
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 housekeepers son Robbie Turner, a childhood friend who, along with Brionys 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 girls 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 Londons World War II military hospitals to a reunion of the Tallis clan in 1999.
Atonement is Ian McEwans 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.
"Moving deftly between styles, this is a compelling exploration of guilt and the struggle for forgiveness." Library Journal
"Ian McEwan's latest novel is probably his finest yet. His stories emanate from the out-of-the-ordinary occurrences that would, however, be less dramatic if they were perceived to be so. But McEwan is fascinated with the workings of perception and with how one person's molehill is another's mountain...." Laurice Taitz, Sunday Times, South Africa
"This twist, this revelation, further emphasizes the novel's already explicit ambivalence about being a novel, and makes the book a proper postmodern artifact, wearing its doubts on its sleeve, on the outside, as the Pompidou does its escalators. But it is unnecessary....because the fineness of the book as a novel, as a distinguished and complex evocation of English life before and during the war, burns away the theoretical, and implants in the memory a living, flaming presence." James Wood, The New Republic
(read the entire New Republic review
In this rich novel by the author of the Booker Prize-winning novel "Amsterdam, " a young girl unwittingly tells a tale that turns her family upside down. Brilliant and utterly enthralling in its depiction of childhood, love and war, England and class, "Atonement" is at its center a profound--and profoundly moving--exploration of shame and forgiveness, of atonement and the difficulty of absolution.
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.
Reading Group Guide
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 groups reading of Ian McEwans international bestseller Atonement.
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 Brionys 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 Clems 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 Robbies 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 Robbies 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 Robbies 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 storys 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 novels epigraph is taken from Jane Austens 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 Austens novel Catherine Norlands mistakes are comical and have no serious outcome, while in Atonement, Brionys 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 Hitlers pathological imagination was a driving force behind World War II?
11. In McEwans 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 Brionys 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] McEwans 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 isnt 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 novels opening with the long-delayed performance of The Trials of Arabella, Brionys youthful contribution to the optimistic genre of Shakespearean comedy? What sort of closure is this in the context of Brionys 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. Audens 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 Brionys novel effective, in her own conscience, as an act of atonement? Does the completed novel compel the reader to forgive her?