Synopses & Reviews
Ian McEwan, Booker Prize-winning author of Amsterdam
, has created a symphonic novel of love and war, childhood and class, guilt and forgiveness that provides all the satisfaction of a brilliant narrative combined with the provocation we have come to expect from this master of English prose.
On a hot summer day in 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis witnesses a moment's flirtation between her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, the son of a servant and Cecilia's childhood friend. But Briony's incomplete grasp of adult motives together with her precocious literary gifts forces a situation that will change the course of their lives. As it follows that event's repercussions through the chaos and carnage of World War II and into the close of the twentieth century, Atonement engages the reader on every conceivable level, with an ease and authority that mark it as a genuine masterpiece.
"Atonement emerges as the author's most deeply felt novel yet....It is a novel that attests not only to Mr. McEwan's mastery of craft and virtuosic control of narrative suspense, but also to his knowledge of the human heart and its rage for symmetry and order." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"Flat-out brilliant....Lush, detailed, vibrantly colored and intense." San Francisco Chronicle
"His most complete and passionate book to date." The New York Times Book Review
"Resplendent....Graceful....Magisterial....Gloriously realized." The Boston Sunday Globe
"McEwan is technically at the height of his powers." The New York Review of Books
"Astonishing....Gorgeous....Bewitching....A thought-provoking, luxuriant novel." Minneapolis Star Tribune
"[McEwan's] best novel so far....It will break your heart." The Star (Toronto)
"The extraordinary range of Atonement suggests that there's nothing McEwan can't do." The Christian Science Monitor
"Magnificent....Suspenseful, psychologically astute and intellectually bracing." Newsday
"[W]e are free to linger in the moment, to savor the exquisite, agonizing aptness of McEwan's images and the delicacy of his touch as he records, in fiction, the true horrors of war, and makes new the ordinary realizations those horrors force upon us." Claire Messud, The Atlantic Monthly
"The dust jacket proclaims Atonement [McEwan's] finest achievement, and although publishers are prone to this...view of their authors' talents, in this case they are triumphantly right." Robert MacFarlane, The Times Literary Supplement (London)
"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." Kirkus Reviews
"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." School Library Journal
"[A] master of psychologically acute and elegantly gothic tales...polished and entrancing....[McEwan] excels brilliantly at depicting moral dilemmas and stressed minds in action." Donna Seaman, Booklist
McEwan, Booker Prize-winning author of Amsterdam, has created a symphonic novel of love and war, childhood and class, guilt and forgiveness that provides all the satisfaction of a brilliant narrative combined with the provocation readers have come to expect from this master of English prose.
About the Author
Ian McEwan is the bestselling author of more than ten books, including the novels The Comfort of Strangers and Black Dogs, both shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Amsterdam, winner of the Booker Prize, and The Child in Time, winner of the Whitbread Award, as well as the story collections First Love, Last Rites, winner of the Somerset Maugham Award, and In Between the Sheets. He has also written screenplays, plays, television scripts, a childrens book, and the libretto for an oratorio. He lives in London.
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”?
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?
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.