A series of childhood mistakes set our characters down winding paths propelled by fate and questionable decisions. Can forgiveness ever truly be found? Are we worthy of it?
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—brings about a crime that will change all their lives.
As it follows that crime’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.
Don’t miss Ian McEwan’s new novel, Lessons, coming in September!
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|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 8.14(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Date of Birth:June 21, 1948
Place of Birth:Aldershot, England
Education:B.A., University of Sussex, 1970; M.A., University of East Anglia, 1971
Read an Excerpt
The play, for which Briony had designed the posters, programmes and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crepe paper, was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch. When the preparations were complete, she had nothing to do but contemplate her finished draft and wait for the appearance of her cousins from the distant north. There would be time for only one day of rehearsal before her brother arrived. At some moments chilling, at others desperately sad, the play told a tale of the heart whose message, conveyed in a rhyming prologue, was that love which did not build a foundation on good sense was doomed. The reckless passion of the heroine, Arabella, for a wicked foreign count is punished by ill fortune when she contracts cholera during an impetuous dash towards a seaside town with her intended. Deserted by him and nearly everybody else, bed-bound in a garret, she discovers in herself a sense of humour. Fortune presents her a second chance in the form of an impoverished doctor — in fact, a prince in disguise who has elected to work among the needy. Healed by him, Arabella chooses judiciously this time, and is rewarded by reconciliation with her family and a wedding with the medical prince on ‘a windy sunlit day in spring'.
Mrs Tallis read the seven pages of The Trials of Arabella in her bedroom, at her dressing table, with the author's arm around her shoulder the whole while. Briony studied her mother's face for every trace of shifting emotion, and Emily Tallis obliged with looks of alarm, snickers of glee and, at the end, grateful smiles and wise, affirming nods. She took her daughter in her arms, onto her lap — ah, that hot smooth little body she remembered from its infancy, and still not gone from her, not quite yet — and said that the play was 'stupendous', and agreed instantly, murmuring into the tight whorl of the girl's ear, that this word could be quoted on the poster which was to be on an easel in the entrance hall by the ticket booth.
Briony was hardly to know it then, but this was the project's highest point of fulfilment. Nothing came near it for satisfaction, all else was dreams and frustration. There were moments in the summer dusk after her light was out, burrowing in the delicious gloom of her canopy bed, when she made her heart thud with luminous, yearning fantasies, little playlets in themselves, every one of which featured Leon. In one, his big, good-natured face buckled in grief as Arabella sank in loneliness and despair. In another, there he was, cocktail in hand at some fashionable city watering hole, overheard boasting to a group of friends: Yes, my younger sister, Briony Tallis the writer, you must surely have heard of her. In a third he punched the air in exultation as the final curtain fell, although there was no curtain, there was no possibility of a curtain. Her play was not for her cousins, it was for her brother, to celebrate his return, provoke his admiration and guide him away from his careless succession of girlfriends, towards the right form of wife, the one who would persuade him to return to the countryside, the one who would sweetly request Briony's services as a bridesmaid.
She was one of those children possessed by a desire to have the world just so. Whereas her big sister's room was a stew of unclosed books, unfolded clothes, unmade bed, unemptied ashtrays, Briony's was a shrine to her controlling demon: the model farm spread across a deep window ledge consisted of the usual animals, but all facing one way — towards their owner — as if about to break into song, and even the farmyard hens were neatly corralled. In fact, Briony's was the only tidy upstairs room in the house. Her straight-backed dolls in their many-roomed mansion appeared to be under strict instructions not to touch the walls; the various thumb-sized figures to be found standing about her dressing table — cowboys, deep-sea divers, humanoid mice — suggested by their even ranks and spacing a citizen's army awaiting orders.
A taste for the miniature was one aspect of an orderly spirit. Another was a passion for secrets: in a prized varnished cabinet, a secret drawer was opened by pushing against the grain of a cleverly turned dovetail joint, and here she kept a diary locked by a clasp, and a notebook written in a code of her own invention. In a toy safe opened by six secret numbers she stored letters and postcards. An old tin petty cash box was hidden under a removable floorboard beneath her bed. In the box were treasures that dated back four years, to her ninth birthday when she began collecting: a mutant double acorn, fool's gold, a rain-making spell bought at a funfair, a squirrel's skull as light as a leaf.
But hidden drawers, lockable diaries and cryptographic systems could not conceal from Briony the simple truth: she had no secrets. Her wish for a harmonious, organised world denied her the reckless possibilities of wrongdoing. Mayhem and destruction were too chaotic for her tastes, and she did not have it in her to be cruel. Her effective status as an only child, as well as the relative isolation of the Tallis house, kept her, at least during the long summer holidays, from girlish intrigues with friends. Nothing in her life was sufficiently interesting or shameful to merit hiding; no one knew about the squirrel's skull beneath her bed, but no one wanted to know. None of this was particularly an affliction; or rather, it appeared so only in retrospect, once a solution had been found.
At the age of eleven she wrote her first story — a foolish affair, imitative of half a dozen folk tales and lacking, she realised later, that vital knowingness about the ways of the world which compels a reader's respect. But this first clumsy attempt showed her that the imagination itself was a source of secrets: once she had begun a story, no one could be told. Pretending in words was too tentative, too vulnerable, too embarrassing to let anyone know. Even writing out the she saids, the and thens, made her wince, and she felt foolish, appearing to know about the emotions of an imaginary being. Self-exposure was inevitable the moment she described a character's weakness; the reader was bound to speculate that she was describing herself. What other authority could she have? Only when a story was finished, all fates resolved and the whole matter sealed off at both ends so it resembled, at least in this one respect, every other finished story in the world, could she feel immune, and ready to punch holes in the margins, bind the chapters with pieces of string, paint or draw the cover, and take the finished work to show to her mother, or her father, when he was home.
Her efforts received encouragement. In fact, they were welcomed as the Tallises began to understand that the baby of the family possessed a strange mind and a facility with words. The long afternoons she spent browsing through dictionary and thesaurus made for constructions that were inept, but hauntingly so: the coins a villain concealed in his pocket were 'esoteric', a hoodlum caught stealing a car wept in 'shameless auto-exculpation', the heroine on her thoroughbred stallion made a 'cursory' journey through the night, the king's furrowed brow was the 'hieroglyph' of his displeasure. Briony was encouraged to read her stories aloud in the library and it surprised her parents and older sister to hear their quiet girl perform so boldly, making big gestures with her free arm, arching her eyebrows as she did the voices, and looking up from the page for seconds at a time as she read in order to gaze into one face after the other, unapologetically demanding her family's total attention as she cast her narrative spell.
Even without their attention and praise and obvious pleasure, Briony could not have been held back from her writing. In any case, she was discovering, as had many writers before her, that not all recognition is helpful. Cecilia's enthusiasm, for example, seemed a little overstated, tainted with condescension perhaps, and intrusive too; her big sister wanted each bound story catalogued and placed on the library shelves, between Rabindranath Tagore and Quintus Tertullian. If this was supposed to be a joke, Briony ignored it. She was on course now, and had found satisfaction on other levels; writing stories not only involved secrecy, it also gave her all the pleasures of miniaturisation. A world could be made in five pages, and one that was more pleasing than a model farm. The childhood of a spoiled prince could be framed within half a page, a moonlit dash through sleepy villages was one rhythmically emphatic sentence, falling in love could be achieved in a single worda glance. The pages of a recently finished story seemed to vibrate in her hand with all the life they contained. Her passion for tidiness was also satisfied, for an unruly world could be made just so. A crisis in a heroine's life could be made to coincide with hailstones, gales and thunder, whereas nuptials were generally blessed with good light and soft breezes. A love of order also shaped the principles of justice, with death and marriage the main engines of housekeeping, the former being set aside exclusively for the morally dubious, the latter a reward withheld until the final page.
The play she had written for Leon's homecoming was her first excursion into drama, and she had found the transition quite effortless. It was a relief not to be writing out the she saids, or describing the weather or the onset of spring or her heroine's face — beauty, she had discovered, occupied a narrow band. Ugliness, on the other hand, had infinite variation. A universe reduced to what was said in it was tidiness indeed, almost to the point of nullity, and to compensate, every utterance was delivered at the extremity of some feeling or other, in the service of which the exclamation mark was indispensable. The Trials of Arabella may have been a melodrama, but its author had yet to hear the term. The piece was intended to inspire not laughter, but terror, relief and instruction, in that order, and the innocent intensity with which Briony set about the project — the posters, tickets, sales booth — made her particularly vulnerable to failure. She could easily have welcomed Leon with another of her stories, but it was the news that her cousins from the north were coming to stay that had prompted this leap into a new form.
That Lola, who was fifteen, and the nine-year-old twins, Jackson and Pierrot, were refugees from a bitter domestic civil war should have mattered more to Briony. She had heard her mother criticise the impulsive behaviour of her younger sister Hermione, and lament the situation of the three children, and denounce her meek, evasive brother-in-law Cecil who had fled to the safety of All Souls' College, Oxford. Briony had heard her parents and sister analyse the latest twists and outrages, charges and counter charges, and she knew the visit was an open-ended one, and might even extend into term time. She had heard it said that the house could easily absorb three children, and that the Quinceys could stay as long as they liked, provided the parents, if they ever visited simultaneously, kept their quarrels away from the Tallis household. Two rooms near Briony's had been dusted down, new curtains had been hung and furniture carried in from other rooms. Normally, she would have been involved in these preparations, but they happened to coincide with her two-day writing bout and the beginnings of the front-of-house construction. She vaguely knew that divorce was an affliction, but she did not regard it as a proper subject, and gave it no thought. It was a mundane unravelling that could not be reversed, and therefore offered no opportunities to the storyteller: it belonged in the realm of disorder. Marriage was the thing, or rather, a wedding was, with its formal neatness of virtue rewarded, the thrill of its pageantry and banqueting, and dizzy promise of lifelong union. A good wedding was an unacknowledged representation of the as yet unthinkable — sexual bliss. In the aisles of country churches and grand city cathedrals, witnessed by a whole society of approving family and friends, her heroines and heroes reached their innocent climaxes and needed to go no further.
If divorce had presented itself as the dastardly antithesis of all this, it could easily have been cast onto the other pan of the scales, along with betrayal, illness, thieving, assault and mendacity. Instead it showed an unglamorous face of dull complexity and incessant wrangling. Like re-armament and the Abyssinia Question and gardening, it was simply not a subject, and when, after a long Saturday morning wait, Briony heard at last the sound of wheels on the gravel below her bedroom window, and snatched up her pages and ran down the stairs, across the hallway and out into the blinding light of midday, it was not insensitivity so much as a highly focused artistic ambition that caused her to shout to the dazed young visitors huddled together by the trap with their luggage, 'I've got your parts, all written out. First performance tomorrow! Rehearsals start in five minutes!'
Immediately, her mother and sister were there to interpose a blander timetable. The visitorsall three were ginger-haired and freckled — were shown their rooms, their cases were carried up by Hardman's son Danny, there was orange juice in the kitchen, a tour of the house, a swim in the pool and lunch in the south garden, under the shade of the vines. All the while, Emily and Cecilia Tallis maintained a patter that surely robbed the guests of the ease it was supposed to confer. Briony knew that if she had travelled two hundred miles to a strange house, bright questions and jokey asides, and being told in a hundred different ways that she was free to choose, would have oppressed her. It was not generally realised that what children mostly wanted was to be left alone. However, the Quinceys worked hard at pretending to be amused or liberated, and this bode well for The Trials of Arabella: this trio clearly had the knack of being what they were not, even though they barely resembled the characters they were to play. Before lunch Briony slipped away to the empty rehearsal room — the nursery — and walked up and down on the painted floorboards, considering her casting options.
On the face of it, Arabella, whose hair was as dark as Briony's, was unlikely to be descended from freckled parents, or elope with a foreign freckled count, rent a garret room from a freckled innkeeper, lose her heart to a freckled prince and be married by a freckled vicar before a freckled congregation. But all this was to be so. Her cousins' colouring was too vivid — virtually fluorescent!— to be concealed. The best that could be said was that Arabella's lack of freckles was the sign — the hieroglyph, Briony might have written — of her distinction. Her purity of spirit would never be in doubt, though she moved through a blemished world. There was a further problem with the twins, who could not be told apart by a stranger. Was it right that the wicked count should so completely resemble the handsome prince, or that both should resemble Arabella's father and the vicar? What if Lola were cast as the prince? Jackson and Pierrot seemed typical eager little boys who would probably do as they were told. But would their sister play a man? She had green eyes and sharp bones in her face, and hollow cheeks, and there was something brittle in her reticence that suggested strong will and a temper easily lost. Merely floating the possibility of the role to Lola might provoke a crisis, and could Briony really hold hands with her before the altar, while Jackson intoned from the Book of Common Prayer?
What People are Saying About This
"McEwan's Atonement…truly dazzles, proving to be as much about the art and morality of writing as it is about the past…. The middle section of Atonement, the two vividly realized set pieces of Robbie's trek to the Channel and Briony's experiences with the wounded evacuees of Dunkirk, would alone have made an outstanding novel…. There is wonderful writing throughout as McEwan weaves his many themes — the accidents of contingency, the sins of absent fathers, class oppression into his narrative, and in a magical love scene."
—Brian Bethune, Maclean’s
"…Atonement is a deliriously great read, but more than that it is a great book.… There are characters you follow with breathless anxiety; a plot worthy of a top-drawer suspense novelist, complete with jolting reversals; language that unspools seemingly effortlessly, yet leaves a minefield of still-to-be-detonated nouns and verbs…. rife with…unforgettable tableaux…."
—The Globe and Mail
"What a joy it is to read a book that shocks one into remembering just how high one's literary standards should be.… a tour de force by one of England's best novelists…. Atonement is a spectacular book; as good a novel and more satisfying… than anything McEwan has written….sublimely written narrative…. The Dunkirk passage is a stupendous piece of writing, a set piece that could easily stand on its own.… "
—Noah Richler, National Post
"I can’t imagine many readers who won’t find it compelling from beginning to end…. McEwan has dealt with major themes before in his novels, but never at this length and with this narrative richness. With Atonement he has staked a convincing claim to be the finest of all that brilliantly talented crew of British novelists, including Margaret Drabble, Martin Amis and Graham Swift, who rose to prominence in the 1980s."
—Phillip Marchand, The Toronto Star
"Atonement has power and stature and is compulsively readable."
—The Gazette (Montreal)
"It is difficult to imagine how the book might be bettered. Bold in its intentions and flawlessly executed, Atonement is one of the rare novels to strike a balance between 'old-fashioned' storytelling and a postmodern exploration of the process of literary creation. Atonement is a tremendous achievement, a rich demonstration of McEwan’s gifts as a storyteller."
—The Vancouver Sun
"Ian McEwan’s writing is so vivid it can make your eyes ache. But you can’t look less closely or put the book down. Such is McEwan’s growing strength. Atonement is exacting and poetic in detail as well as generous with wry, often heart-rending insight. Each character is richly portrayed and fully realized, from their subtlest thoughts and motivations to their period dress and surroundings. Atonement sustains, rewards and surprises right up to its final page."
"With a clear prose style and a humming sense of tension throughout, Atonement is both illuminating and entertaining. McEwan believes in love and goodness, but he is far more interested in good’s contrary, whether it is evil or mere psychological weakness. There may be atonement for the past, but there is never redemption."
—The Edmonton Journal
"Class conflict, war and the responsibilities of the artist are among the themes of Atonement, but it is Ian McEwan’s writing that makes this novel one of his best: lush and langorous in the long first section, understated and precise in the latter two."
—The Ottawa Citizen
"…a classic McEwan performance, combining an intense forward narrative thrust with the sharpness of observation and description that has made him this country’s unrivalled literary giant."
—The Independent (U.K.)
"Atonement [is] McEwan's best novel, so far, his masterpiece…. Atonement is...a meditation on the impulse of storytelling itself, on the wish to give shape to experience which deceives no less than it illuminates."
—Evening Standard (U.K.)
"The close-up verdict will be simple enough: Atonement is a magnificent novel, shaped and paced with awesome confidence and eloquence; as searching an account of error, shame and reparation as any in modern fiction…. The bigger picture would have to set it within the long sweep of a literary canon. With a lordly self-consciousness, McEwan here blends his own climate into the weather-pattern of classic English fiction. Atonement is not a modest work; but then (to distort Churchill on Attlee), it has an awful lot to be immodest about."
—The Independent (U.K.)
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 group’s reading of Ian McEwan’s 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 Briony’s 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 Clem’s 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 Robbie’s 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 Robbie’s 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 Robbie’s 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 story’s 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 novel’s epigraph is taken from Jane Austen’s 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 Austen’s novel Catherine Norland’s mistakes are comical and have no serious outcome, while in Atonement, Briony’s 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 Hitler’s pathological imagination was a driving force behind World War II?
11. In McEwan’s 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 Briony’s 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] 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 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 novel’s opening with the long-delayed performance of The Trials of Arabella, Briony’s youthful contribution to the optimistic genre of Shakespearean comedy? What sort of closure is this in the context of Briony’s 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. Auden’s 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 Briony’s novel effective, in her own conscience, as an act of atonement? Does the completed novel compel the reader to forgive her?