The novel opens on a sweltering summer day in 1935 at the Tallis family’s 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 parent’s marital breakup -- Leon’s 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 Briony’s play aren’t going well; her cousin Lola has stolen the starring role, the twin boys can’t 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 Hitler’s 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 London’s 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 McEwan’s 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.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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 children’s book, and the libretto for an oratorio. He lives in London.
Praise for Atonement…
“A beautiful and majestic fictional panorama.” —John Updike, The New Yorker
“Flat-out brilliant. . . . Lush, detailed, vibrantly colored and intense.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“A tour de force. . . . Every bit as affecting as it is gripping.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Luminous. . . . Atonement is brilliant and like nothing he’s ever written before.” —Newsweek
“No one now writing fiction in the English language surpasses Ian McEwan.” —The Washington Post Book World
“Brilliant. . . . McEwan could be the most psychologically astute writer working today, our era’s Jane Austen.” —Esquire
“A work of astonishing depth and humanity.” —The Economist
“His most complete and passionate book to date.” —The New York Times Book Review
“In the seriousness of its intentions and the dazzle of its language, Atonement made me starry-eyed all over again on behalf of literature’s humanizing possibilities.” —Daphne Merkin, Los Angeles Times
“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 . . . [with] one of the most remarkable erotic scenes in modern fiction. . . . [It] is something you will never forget.” —Chicago Tribune
“Enthralling. . . . With psychological insight and a command of sensual and historical detail, Mr. McEwan creates an absorbing fictional world.” —The Wall Street Journal
“[Atonement] hauls a defining part of the British literary tradition up to and into the 21st century.” —The Guardian
“Astonishing. . . . Gorgeous. . . . Bewitching. . . . A thought-provoking, luxuriant novel.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
“McEwan is one of the most gifted literary storytellers alive. . . . [Atonement] implants in the memory a living, flaming presence.” —James Wood, The New Republic
“[McEwan’s] best novel so far. . . . It will break your heart.” —The Star (Toronto)
“A masterpiece of moral inquiry. . . . Beautiful and wrenching.” —New York
“A first-rate novel on any scale. . . . His most expansive and ambitious book. . . . Few, if any, novelists writing today match McEwan in ingenuity and plotting.” —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Magnificent. . . . McEwan forces his readers to turn the pages with greater dread and anticipation than does perhaps any other ‘literary’ writer working in English today.” —Claire Messud, The Atlantic Monthly
“The extraordinary range of Atonement suggests that there’s nothing McEwan can’t do.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“Magically readable. . . . Never has McEwan shown himself to be more in sympathy with the vulnerability of the human heart.” —Sunday Times (London)
“Magnificent. . . . Suspenseful, psychologically astute and intellectually bracing.” —Newsday
“Not since the 19th century has a writer stepped in and out of his characters’ minds with such unfettered confidence.” —The Plain Dealer
“A novel of artistry, power and truth that puts it among the most extraordinary works of fiction of the last decade. . . . It is, quite simply, magnificent–a masterpiece.” —Michael Pakenham, The Baltimore Sun
“Magical. . . . A love story, a war story, and a story about stories, and so it hits the heart, the guts and the brain.” —The New York Observer
“Luminous. . . . McEwan’s writing has often made me blink, but never before blink with emotion. . . . [McEwan] is at one with his talent.” —Robert Cremins, Houston Chronicle
“Atonement can’t be laid down once it’s been picked up. . . . [McEwan] can write rings around most others writing in English today.” —The Weekly Standard