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Atonement: A Novel

A book by Ian McEwan

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A Thing of Beauty

  • May 21, 2008
When it comes to Atonement, I'm arriving late to the party. I have been aware of the novel almost since it was first published and I know of the major motion picture produced from its story but, for various reasons, it has taken me several years to get around to reading it.

Ian McEwan has written a complicated, multi-layered book that is simply beautiful when considered as a whole. It is a coming-of-age novel, a crime novel, a love story, a war novel, a mystery and an author's reflections on the art of fiction writing, all rolled into one. The book is structured in three distinctive sections, each with a very different story to tell, and an epilogue that flashes forward more than 50 years.

Part One, set in 1935, introduces thirteen-year old Briony Tallis, an aspiring novelist even at that age, who has a vivid imagination but a limited understanding of the motivations and emotions of the adults around her. Her imagination takes over when from a distance she witnesses a scene between her older sister, Cecelia, and the charwoman's son, Robbie, at the fountain in front of the family home. Imagining that Robbie has forced her sister to strip to her underwear and immerse herself in the fountain, Briony is filled with conflicting emotions. As the day goes on, she becomes more and more certain that Robbie is a danger to her sister and is so convinced that he is evil that her imagination leads her to identify him as responsible for a sexual assault that occurs that night.

Part Two picks up the story some five years later in France where Robbie, who has been freed from prison to join the fight against Hitler, is part of a British army retreating to Dunkirk in hopes of being evacuated to England in time to fight another day. Painfully carrying a piece of shrapnel in his side, he realizes that he is responsible for his own survival and slowly works his way to the coast with two others. But by the time he gets there to experience the chaos and further slaughter of the Dunkirk beaches his wound is causing him serious complications.

Part Three focuses on the now eighteen-year old Briony who has moved to London to study nursing at exactly the point at which her training hospital is overrun by casualties from the Dunkirk slaughter. Her experiences mature her in more ways than one and she longs to somehow undo the wrong she committed against Robbie and Cecelia who has been estranged from the family ever since Robbie's imprisonment as a convicted rapist.

Finally, there is the epilogue set in 1999 in which Briony, now a respected elderly novelist joins family to celebrate her seventy-seventh birthday, a section of the book in which McEwan has stashed one final surprise for his readers. This is an ending that readers will likely react to differently, some in surprise, some in admiration, and others in frustration and even a little anger.

Atonement paints a vivid picture of pre-war England and the days immediately after the British army collapse in France caused most Londoners to expect German bombers and troops to appear at any time. It explores the emotions of both those seeking to atone for transgressions against others and those who suffered those transgressions and find it hard to forgive or forget them. It studies the "truths" of fiction and what writers and their readers should expect from each other.

I may have gotten there late but this is one party I'm happy I didn't miss.

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More Atonement reviews
review by . July 19, 2010
I saw the movie before I had the chance to read this book, so I knew the plot twist at the end of the book. Even knowing this I was blown away by the writing. This book proves just how painfully beautiful written language can be. I have read many reviews about how heavy this book is and  is hard to “get into” Yes, this is a heavy book and can be hard to "get into", but once past the first chapter the writing is so breath-takingly beautiful that I cannot do it justice …
Quick Tip by . June 22, 2010
This is an amazing story; the telling of the first day's events is some of the most masterful writing of the last 40 years. Watch out for that denouement!!!
Quick Tip by . June 17, 2010
No matter how hard I tried I could NOT care about the female lead in this book until she was played by Kiera Knightly in the movie version. Character development leaves much to be desired.
Quick Tip by . June 16, 2010
this is what writer's hope to achieve when they speak of "honing their craft." poetic. breathtaking. i feel this book to my core.
review by . February 06, 2009
Having seen the film first, this book afforded no real surprises in terms of plot. The language was dense and difficult to enter into for quite some time, and I had to force myself to keep reading for the first 100 or more pages. The characters were interesting enough to keep me going, but the action and the way it was told left something to be desired.      However, as often happens with these types of styles, my efforts to finish the novel paid off handsomely. The prose, the …
review by . March 13, 2009
Reading Atonement was a fairly wrenching experience. Once begun, I was driven to finish. The growing tension of the story made it impossible for me to stop reading until the advent of a new course of action and I was released me until the next event.      In the innocence of childhood, precocious talents are encouraged, applauded. But by the next stage of development, adolescents are often capable of spite and revenge, and exhibit a certain primal sense of justice. Things are …
review by . September 08, 2005
Reading Atonement was a wrenching experience. Once begun, I was driven to finish. The growing tension of the story made it impossible for me to stop reading until the advent of a new course of action and I was released me until the next time.     In the innocence of childhood, precocious talents are encouraged, applauded. But by the next stage of development, adolescents are often capable of spite and revenge, and exhibit a certain primal sense of justice. Things are black and …
review by . October 04, 2002
Does your heart miss a beat when you see a new book by Dan Koontz? Have You ever marvelled at the writing style of John Saul? If so... you will hate this book. You will find the first 150 pages unbearable, and you probably will not realize that there is actually a surprise ending (it is very subtle). I don't mean to be rude, but this novel is simply not for everyone. However, if you enjoy well written and plush details (Which reminds a little of Daisy Miller, and some of Henry James' works). I enjoyed …
review by . April 30, 2002
This is a very well-written, indeed it's a beautifully written, book. The language used just keeps you flowing along through the story, which is absorbing in its own right. The book presents a tale of misplaced knowledge, of conclusions reached without sufficient information, and of accusations made which profoundly change the lives of everyone involved. We see guilt, sorrow, venality, heroism, in fact, almost every emotion runs through this book except the one most needed: forgiveness. The author …
review by . April 13, 2002
In a time when we are blessed with a wealth of gifted writers, even though we still mourn the passing of the likes of WG Sebald, it is still a wonder to encounter a work of the magnitude of Ian McEwan's current masterwork ATONEMENT. Aside from he fact that McEwan has been consistently placing his fine, terse novels such as AMSTERDAM and ENDURING LOVE before us, there is little to prepare us for the grandeur of his magnum opus ATONEMENT. We have grown to expect this author's mastery of the English …
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Oil company professional of almost 40 years experience who has worked in oil-producing countries around the world. I love books, baseball and bluegrass music and hope to dedicate myself to those hobbies … more
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About this book


 Ian McEwan's Booker Prize-nominatedAtonementis his first novel sinceAmsterdamtook home the prize in 1998. But whileAmsterdamwas a slim, sleek piece,Atonementis a more sturdy, more ambitious work, allowing McEwan more room to play, think, and experiment.

We meet 13-year-old Briony Tallis in the summer of 1935, as she attempts to stage a production of her new drama "The Trials of Arabella" to welcome home her older, idolized brother Leon. But she soon discovers that her cousins, the glamorous Lola and the twin boys Jackson and Pierrot, aren't up to the task, and directorial ambitions are abandoned as more interesting prospects of preoccupation come onto the scene. The charlady's son, Robbie Turner, appears to be forcing Briony's sister Cecilia to strip in the fountain and sends her obscene letters; Leon has brought home a dim chocolate magnate keen for a war to promote his new "Army Ammo" chocolate bar; and upstairs, Briony's migraine-stricken mother Emily keeps tabs on the house from her bed. Soon, secrets emerge that change the lives of everyone present....

The interwar, upper-middle-class setting of the book's long, masterfully sustained opening section might recall Virginia Woolf or Henry Green, but as we move forward--eventually to the turn of the 21st century--the novel's central concerns emerge, and McEwan's voice becomes clear, even personal. For at heart, Atonement is about the pleasures, pains, and dangers of...

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Books, Cafe Libri, Fiction, Ian Mcewan


ISBN-10: 0385503954
ISBN-13: 978-0385503952
Author: Ian McEwan
Genre: Literature & Fiction
Publisher: Nan A. Talese
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A Clockwork Orange

Coming of Age Novels


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