On the hottest day of the summer of 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis sees her sister, Cecilia, strip off her clothes and plunge into the fountain in the garden of their country house. Watching her is Robbie Turner, her childhood friend who, like Cecilia, has recently come down 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 not even imagined at its start, and will have become victims of the younger girl's imagination. Briony will have witnessed mysteries and committed a crime that creates in her a sense of guilt that will color her entire life. Ian McEwan has in each of his novels drawn the reader brilliantly into the intimate lives and situations of his characters. But never before has he written on a canvas so large: taking the reader from a manor house in England in 1935, to the retreat to Dunkirk in 1941, to a London hospital soon after where the maimed, broken, and dying soldiers are shipped from the evacuation, 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, it is at its center a profound-and profoundly moving-exploration of shame and forgiveness, of atonement and the difficulty of absolution.
At its barest of bones, this is a book about two lovers and the girl who tears them apart. Cecilia Tallis, a rich young woman, and Robbie Turner, her charlady's son, have both recently returned to the Tallis estate from Cambridge University, where they have been studiously avoiding one another. It is only during the hot summer following their return that they realise how deep their feelings really are.
Waiting for them back home is Cecilia's younger sister. I have to admit, I hated Briony in the first half of the book. She reminded me of a young version of Barbara in Notes on a Scandal. Manipulative, naive, attention-seeking, self-obsessed and utterly destructive in her unswerving self-righteousness. Briony wants to be a writer and a grown-up, not necessarily in that order, and her imagination tends to run away with her. When a collection of bizarre encounters and Briony's overactive mind are thrown together during one frightening night, Robbie is arrested for a crime he didn't commit, and the Tallis family falls apart.
Moving on a few years, Robbie is fighting his way across France in a desperate attempt to get back to Cecilia; the love of his life is pouring out her devotion in her letters, waiting for him to return, and Briony is seeking to redeem herself by following in Cecilia's footsteps and training as a nurse. From the innocence and family atmosphere of the first half of the book, suddenly the reader is plunged into Robbie's terrifying trek towards the beaches of Dunkirk, and from there into Briony's horrific experiences in the hospital as the first soldiers are brought back from the retreat. Will Cecilia and Robbie be reunited? And will Briony ever manage to atone for what she did and finally set things to rights?
I cannot believe how much I underestimated this book. McEwan's writing is simply sublime. He keeps the pace steady, picking out tiny details and observations, exploring personal motives and flights of fancy, revisiting memories, and immersing the reader completely inside his characters' heads - yet I never felt impatient for things to speed up. It would have been so easy for chaotic moments in France and in the hospital to be flitted over and churned together into a frenzy, but their impact would have been halved. There is no escape from the thoughts, the joys, the horrors, the beautiful and haunting things that McEwan wants us to see. With a single sentence he can rip the rug out from under the complacent reader, then with a beautiful description encourage us to regroup and reflect once more. As with so many books in which I become deeply attached to and emotionally invested in each and every character, I had a feeling I was going to be a bit tearful by the end, and I was right - I spent fifteen minutes sobbing into my pillow!
I could go on and on, but instead I'll stop here and just say... please read it. You will recognise yourself in parts, and recoil from others; you will be educated and shocked; you will feel elation and joy but also be plunged into sadness and anger. It is an epic and exquisite rollercoaster, and I am so glad I finally chose to stop procrastinating and experience it for myself!
I must say, I'm rather... underwhelmed. McEwan writes beautifully and displays a stunning command of language, but I felt that the storytelling here left much to be desired. This is a psychological novel, above all else, and he's set out to show us what a large impact our perceptions and choices can have on our lives and the lives of those around us. He does so by layering event after event, observation after observation. Tiny occurrences are given the same weight as life-shattering moments. In many cases, the very pointlessness of it all is, in and of itself, the point. I don't deny that this is clever, and that it gives McEwan a perfect area in which to toy with these pretty, pretty words of his, but I could never help hoping that something would happen, for god's sakes! Every time the story seemed to be on the cusp of something, the author backtracked and indulged in more of his (admittedly gorgeous) descriptions. It bothered me.
Things did improve somewhat after Part I. I found that McEwan's approach captured wartime events much better than upper-class country life. The book began to engage me, at long last. I really sank into it. I found myself trudging through France with Robbie, working in the hospital with Briony. I particularly enjoyed the rejection letter she received, which seemed to be a commentary on ATONEMENT itself. I started to think this might be a book worth keeping around for another reading.
Then the ending killed it for me.
I won't say more than that. I don't want to ruin it for the rest of you. I find, though, that endings are almost more important to me than everything that came before. The ending can cast the entire book, (or film, or television show, or whatever), in a whole new light. It can elevate certain prior events, downplay others, make the reader rethink everything that's come before. Sometimes this is a good thing. Sometimes it... well, isn't.
I'm sure there are plenty of readers who found ATONEMENT's ending fantastic. I'm really, really not one of them.
But, despite my own issues, I do recommend this. If you enjoy beautiful language and elegant writing, you'll love this. I give it top marks on that front, and cannot justify giving it fewer than four stars overall.
Superficially it is the story of Briony, who at the age of 13 and full of obsessive self-importance and childish misunderstanding, commits an act of such import that her whole life and the lives of her family are irrevocably altered. Set at the beginning of the second World War the aftermath of Briony’s ‘crime’ spirals the reader into the ignominy of the brutal reality of the war, almost as a consequence of her original misdeed.
The book is divided into distinct parts, with calculated voids between the occurrences, and with incredible descriptions of seemingly unconnected minutia of the characters’ lives. But it was in this trivia – in reality, what else are the true perceptions of life - where I felt the mastery of the authorship came to the fore; it was here that the reader was forced to question, imagine and consider the impact of the original actions, and the considerable reactions, against an horrific backdrop. And despite the gulf between the stories, perhaps even due to them, subtle insights are delicately placed into the reader’s mind allowing, only at the very end, an answer of sorts.
I have difficulty, still, in organising my thoughts about this book and I continue to be unsure of the entire significance of the title ‘atonement’ within the book. I became dismayed when the story jumped, often, to another time and place, and it was left to my imagination to complete; until the next portion offered a somewhat satisfactory conclusion. Somehow though, I think this is exactly what the author had in mind – for, in actuality, things are not what they seem; it may be impossible to truly make amends; and rarely is life neat.
A heart-wrenching tale which will haunt me for a long time.
The first section begins before World War II hit England and introduces the Tallis family. Each chapter follows a member of the family, giving intimate details of each one’s thoughts and feelings about their lives (the father is conspicuously absent other than in the minds of the family). Emily, the matriarch, has just taken in two nephews and a niece because her sister ran off to live in France with her beau. This part of the book ends horribly when the nephews run away and while looking for her brothers, the niece is raped by an unknown man. Emily’s youngest daughter, Briony, with clouded judgment, swears that the rapist was a family friend, Robbie.
The reader knows that Robbie was not the culprit, and we learn during his war journeys that he was convicted and sent to prison based on Briony’s false evidence. Briony realizes her tragic mistake and seeks forgiveness from Robbie and her sister, Cecelia.
This novel is Briony’s atonement for her sins. By setting up the novel in this way, McEwan is able to provide a glimpse into the writing process through Briony. As a reader, I was frustrated at first by the seemingly drawn-out and overly descriptive prose, but I came to appreciate the style for its depth and character analysis.
Never fear. I loved the book just as much as the movie. I actually listened to this book, mostly while driving, and I’m quite lucky I didn’t wind up in a ditch somewhere due to my complete inattention to my surroundings. I became so wrapped up in the characters, the story, and the heart wrenching consequences of one thirteen-year-old’s misinterpretation of a number of events and a rash decision. This was my first foray into Ian McEwan’s writing and it definitely won’t be the last. I was mesmerized with his writing style. The characters, especially that of the young Briony, were so well-drawn. She is so frustratingly self-absorbed and narcissistic in the beginning of the novel, and her imaginative whims that so many young girls possess lead to such a catastrophic turn of events. I’ll say no more. You must read it for yourself.
I don’t often reread books anymore due to the sheer quantity of amazing novels out there that I must get my hands on, but I can definitely say this is a book I will revisit, perhaps a few times, in the future.
Let me say first that I am a big fan of McEwan's work (although not so much the earlier novels that earned him the "Ian Macabre" moniker). It's not surprising that the very things that so many readers disliked are, for me, it's greatest strengths. If you are reading the novel solely as a linear story, you are likely to be irritated by the questions it poses about the process of writing, the "authority" of the author, the responsibilities of the writer to his or her subject and readers, and the readers' responsibilities. You'll probably hate the conclusion. And perhaps be annoyed by the "revisions" of the story as the third person narration moves shifts in time, place, and point of view--something I found particularly intriguing. McEwan plays with all kinds of additional lit crit-type things, including metafictional allusions to Jane Austen, Dante, Virginia Woolf, Shakespeare, and more; and some heavy handed symbolism (the broken vase, the recurrence of threes).
The story itself--which is probably known well enough for me to skip a lengthy summary--is an intriguing one that eventually focuses on the issues of guilt, punishment, and atonement. It also examines the snobbery of the British class system (especially in the first section, set in 1935), the ugliness and inhumanity of war, the power of words and the imagination, and the painful coming of age of Briony Tallis, the central character. Written with a third person omniscient narrator, the novel is divided into four sections. The first is set in 1935 on the Tallis family's country estate. It's Briony's 13th birthday, and she plans to celebrate her brother's homecoming with a performance of the first play she has ever written, "The Trials of Arabella." But things go terribly wrong, disrupting Briony's penchant for order--for the world to be as she would have it be. Lola, Jackson, and Pierrot, cousins from the north who have arrived in the wake of their mother running off to France with a lover, are assigned parts in the play--but not necessarily the parts Briony intended, and their interpretations don't necessarily agree with her. In addition, the relationship between her sister Cecelia and Robbie Turner, the charwoman's son, which Briony imagined as a romance similar to that in her play, has taken a turn that confuses and surprises her. When a crime is committed, Briony's rigidly ordered and highly imagined world begins to fall apart.
I don't want to give away any more details that would spoil the reading experience, so let me say only that Part Two is told from Robbie's point of view as a soldier in France, heading towards the beach where the Dunkirk evacuation is about to occur; and Part Three relates Briony's wartime experiences as a nurse trainee. The last, and shortest, section jumps ahead to 1999 and is told, again, from Briony's point of view.
For me, Atonement is a rich novel that I know will take me deeper each time that I revisit it. I loved the metafictional elements, and I really enjoyed making a study of it this time rather than simply taking it on as pleasure reading. Highly recommended.
At some level, Atonement is metafiction, questioning the position and responsibilities of a storyteller to his or her audience. Briony's need for melodrama stemmed from ideas borne out of nineteenth century fiction, but clearly life ought not be a nineteenth cenutury novel. So what should it be, how do we craft "plots" to live out, and what exactly is art imitating if not life? The book becomes more realistic than realist fiction, with these underlying self-aware traces beneath the plot
It's a beautifully-written and important novel. Everything - the characters, setting, and events - are all so skillfully done that the entire work is just compelling and seamless; really impressive
This is a tragic story of a love that was truly meant to be, but never fully grew to its full fruition because of the naitivity of a girl, bound by jealousy and fear. The lovers are Cecelia and Robbie and their fate is turned in the events that take place on one night. The girl who interrupted their love was Briony, Cecelia’s younger, imaginative sister who made more of what she saw and heard than she had a right to.
This is also the story of consequences and how the decisions you make influence not only your path, but those of others around you. Briony’s false accusations tear apart Cecilia & Robbie’s love. It takes a lifetime for Briony to make atonement for the wake of her lies.
I watched this movie in Big Bear over Thanksgiving week in 2008. The movie brought me to tears. It was a movie that I had purchased, however had just not gotten around to watching. In the dark of the night, I watched it alone and was struck by its force. It was a truly incredible movie. For those who may be familiar with my blog, I am a stickler about reading books before watching the movies based upon them. I want my mind to be a fresh and clean palate for the words of the book. In this particular case, it ended up that the movie induced me to purchase the book. Particularly, it was the commentary on the movie DVD that had indicated that this movie so closely followed the book that I thought the book must be wonderful.
Along with several others, I purchased the book. When I went to read it, I found that I was disturbed by the images in my head that were associated with the movie. It is hard reading a story that you already know the ending to. This further enforces my belief that I should always read a book before viewing the movie (thank God I read The Secret Life of Bees and haven’t watched the movie yet). In any case, I’ve started and stopped reading this novel several times. Why? Because it felt “wordy” to me and I already knew the story. I became disappointed in myself. I had made a determination to read this book, I invested in purchasing it in hardback, and damn it if I wasn’t going to read it!
I promised myself it would be read before April was over; as such, I have read the novel. I felt differently about the novel than the movie. I loved the movie and didn’t love the book. Why? Because when I read Briony’s thoughts and feelings, I felt nothing but contempt for her. I already knew that she had ruined Cecelia & Robbie’s hopes at love and life. She seemed almost oblivious to the ramifications of her childish whims. In addition, the book was so filled with description of scenery and events that I found myself rushing to finish the book. I didn’t want to envision what the book was saying because the movie had done that for me.
There were some differences between the movie and the book. The ending was quite different than the movie and I believe that the movie would have been better served had it chosen the identical ending to the book. I also felt a much deeper connection to Briony in her years as a nurse in the book versus how it was displayed in the movie. Overall, if I had to choose one or the other, I’d choose the movie. How sad is that? I love books! I love the poetry of words. But, I feel in some ways that my read and review were doomed because of my love for the movie.
On Sher’s “Out of Ten Scale:”
In regards to recommendations, I would DEFINITELY recommend the movie. The book… I believe is for the few who really love the art of writing and the art of words. Some of the passages were so well written that they were poetic in nature. This is a truly gifted author and his efforts are not wasted on this novel. If there is one thing that you can take away from this review, it is to read the book before you see this movie and not in the reverse order, as I did.
For the genre Fiction:Historical, I am going to rate this book an 8.5 OUT OF 10.
Part II covers Dunkirk from Robbie's perspective. Part Three is from Briony's perspective as a nurse in wartime London. The scenes in those second two parts involving World War II were so evocative and immersive I can't regret reading this book. But then we get the coda set in 1999 and it left me sputtering in anger. The thing is that ending in many ways is brilliant, and I can recognize that even through my hate for it.
And here be the spoiler part where I get the bitterness towards the Briony the author and McEwan the Author off my chest. In the third part, Briony gets the letter from the magazine about her novella, and I feel contemptuous because obviously she's learned nothing. What happened to Robbie--what she did to Robbie--is still nothing but grist for her writing mill. Certainly her working as a nurse is no atonement--its more material for her writing and self-aggrandizement. If you truly want to atone for a crime, the first thing you must do above all is eschew the spoils--and real regret and the ironies of that letter seemed lost on her.
Then, well, she seems to have enough of an epiphany and to see something of the letter's irony to come to her sister and do what Cecelia and Robbie want her to do to put things to rights. Doing so would have real cost, cause real pain and humiliation to her and the book there might have ended on a note of redemption for the character.
But wait! It turns out in the contemporary coda that Robbie and Cecelia died in the war, Briony has had a brilliant career as a novelist and is celebrated by her family in her old age. Even the odious Lola and Paul are Lady and Lord. Her "atonement" is a creative non-fiction account of what happened on that day over 60 years ago (with a happy ending!)--and it will only be released after Briony's death when it can cost her nothing.
I can already hear people protesting that ending it without the coda would be too pat. Why that coda is a brilliant reflection on the nature of writing and the author as God! (The very fact that's pointed out in the book just makes me feel even more bitter toward McEwan.)
Sorry. But there's something a bit too facile in that. I'm a bit alienated by writers who write about writing--it's narcissistic, as if nothing *is* more important than God, the author. Mind you, that is an apt characterization of Briony--from adolescent to septuagenarian--but I was still left angry at her and Ewan both.
This is a very sad, romantic story, but if you didn't like the film you probably wouldn't like the book either. It's quite graphic in places (both sexual and violent) which may put some people off.
Not a favourite, but it was a good, light read, and while I've not read any of Ian McEwan's book before he had an excellent way with words/setting the scene, a good knowledge of how people think/feel, and is also quite perceptive. For example, Briony says she doesn't really keep a proper diary, she just likes flicking through it and seeing/feeling the pages covered in her writing - I do this too XD He seems to have really thought out his characters, even to knowing their strange little habits like this one. I also found it interesting to read a romance written by a man! But he does it very well. I will be checking out some more of his books, based on this one.
Atonement is a multifaceted little gem of a book.
The Rest of It:
During the summer of 1935, Briony witnesses an encounter between her older sister Cecilia and a boy named Robbie Turner. Briony’s interpretation of the event and those thereafter, lead her to tell a devastating lie. As time passes, the realization of what she’s done leaves her desperate for redemption and forgiveness which only the absolute truth can bring.
I love this book. I first read it years ago for book group but recently re-read it for the class I am taking. In class, we took several weeks to discuss it and let me tell you, it was quite a treat to have that much time to discuss the book. This is one of those books that is a bit of everything. There’s a love story, betrayal, the loss of innocence, war and the whole theme of atonement itself…it’s just so rich. So full.
As you read, your thoughts go one way and then another. McEwan’s attention to detail was tiresome for some, but for me? I lapped it up. The setting and the characters were easy to picture in my mind and I found that I could relate to several of the characters at once. A young girl, living in a huge house out in the English countryside tells a lie that can’t be taken back. How can you resist that?
Atonement is considered by many to be McEwan’s best work. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2001 and this is one case where I can totally understand why.
WARNING: This review might be seen as including low-level spoilers.
Atonement tells the story of Cecilia Tallis and Robbie Turner, young lovers whose lives are torn apart by the lies of Cecilia's younger sister, Briony. The story is told, by and large, from Briony's point of view, and is made up of three parts. The first tells the story of what happened that summer, the second tells of Robbie's subsequent experiences in France during World War 2, and the final part tells of Briony's realization of the results of her actions and her attempts to, well, atone. The books ends with Briony as an old woman reflecting on her life, her actions, and her future.
The story of lovers waiting for each other through a war is a classic one, as is the story of a lover wronged, but McEwan did a nice job of combining the two. In most parts the novels flows well, and the changes in perspective and time don't come across as abrupt. However, one of my biggest complaints is that McEwan used foreshadowing with far too heavy a hand, especially in the first part of the book. The characters repeatedly say things like "Years later I would look back on that night and wish I could stop myself from committing the crime," or something of that sort. Over and over again. Annoying. I don't actually need to be spoonfed, you know? Still, most of the pacing felt natural. As far as the writing goes, there were chunks of beautifully crafted prose sprinkled among an expanse of perfectly fine if underwhelming prose. Which is fine, since I don't expect every writer to be Nabokov, and when McEwan did get the mood just right, it was lovely. He is particularly skilled at describing emotional and intellectual transitions- his description of Briony's thoughts while a child were striking for their accurate portrayal of the combined childishness and maturity often seen in children of that age. (The character is 13, for those who haven't read the book.)
The other aspect of the book that I felt was well-done were the descriptions of Robbie's experiences in France. Since I don't know a great deal about what happened during the earlier years of World War 2, I can't speak to the veracity of his descriptions, but the internal conversations that Robbie has struck me as both plausible and tragic, as he struggles to survive both physically and mentally, in the chaos of war. The same could be said of the descriptions of Briony's time working as a nurse, handling the wounded.
Aside from the sometimes mediocre writing, the actual story drew some criticism from me. The story of the enduring love between Cecilia and Robbie, based on one brief liaison, seemed highly unlikely to me, but then my friends do say I don't have a romantic bone in my body. I would disagree, but I digress. I can understand waiting for someone for years, if you have something to build on, but 5 minutes? Come on. When I forgot about the actual premise, I enjoyed the love story, but when it was brought to my attention by something in the story, I found myself scoffing all over again. It didn't ruin the book or anything, but it did strike me as requiring a huge suspension of disbelief.
Lately I've been horrified by what garbage is wildly popular (ahem *Dan Brown* cough), not to mention labeled a "modern classic", so I was pleased to find that this book, which falls into both of those categories, was not actually horrible, or brainless, or unspeakably (and pointlessly) pretentious (ahem *The Corrections* cough). Atonement is a thoroughly readable book and while I don't expect it to last the test of time required to make it a true classic, it at least needn't shame our generation.
What does it mean to write so tightly? Why should imagination be kept that tensely wound? McEwan is a little like an over-wound pendulum clock: it moves deliberately and predictably, but it takes unpleasant force to keep the mechanism going.
Having already seen the movie, I had a basic idea of the characters and story. It’s the love story of Cecilia and Robbie, whose fledgling romance was ripped apart when Cecilia’s sister, Briony, falsely accused Robbie of raping her cousin. It’s also the story of forgiveness and redemption, as an older Briony tried to rectify her error but recanting her story. And if that’s not enough, it’s the story of war: war between countries fighting in World War II – and strife in Cecilia and Briony’s families as they were torn apart by Briony’s accusation.
What I liked best about Atonement was the excellent characterization. It was easy to love Robbie and Cecilia and feel sorry for their fates. It was easy to dislike the young Briony with her 10-year-old smugness and soften a bit when you met her as a young nurse. Even the secondary characters held my interest.
I would recommend Atonement without reservation to any reader who loves modern literary fiction. I look forward to reading more by Ian McEwan – he is one of the best storytellers of his generation.