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
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.
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.”
Reading Group 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 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?