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Atonement: A Novel

A book by Ian McEwan

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Should have won the Booker

  • Apr 1, 2002
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Winner of Britain's 1998 Booker prize for "Amsterdam," Ian McEwan narrowly missed winning again for "Atonement," a novel of breathtaking reach and grasp, power and subtlety, as perfectly structured as a Michaelangelo sculpture. Last year's Booker winner, Peter Carey's "The True History of the Kelly Gang" is a fine, entertaining, really good novel, but not a patch on "Atonement." It's difficult to reign in the hyperbole in discussing this masterful, riveting, incisive book, but I'll try.

The story is told in four very different segments. The long first section is set on the Tallis family's comfortable country estate in 1935. At its center is Briony Tallis, 13 when the story opens, 77 at the novel's close. The second section jumps to 1940 for a graphic, heartrending depiction of the rout at Dunkirk from the viewpoint of Robbie, a family protégé and gardener's son, and the third returns to Briony, a trainee nurse in a London hospital, awaiting the Dunkirk evacuees. The last section, narrated by Briony, reflects on the past from the vantage point of old age.

As the story opens, Briony, the youngest of three children, and a prolific short story writer, has turned her hand to playwrighting to celebrate the coming visit of her older brother, Leon, and involve some cousins displaced by their parents' impending divorce. But complementing Briony's vivid imagination is a passion for precision and order and directing the recalcitrant, even manipulative cousins, into her meticulous vision proves an unwieldy challenge. "The self-contained world she had drawn with clear and perfect lines had been defaced with the vague scribble of other minds, other needs; and time itself, so easily sectioned on paper into acts and scenes, was even now dribbling uncontrollably away."

While she is wrestling with this frustration, Briony views an incomprehensible scene from the window: her older sister Cecilia disrobing and jumping into the fountain while her old childhood friend, Robbie, looks on. The scene spurs Briony's imagination while the cousins rouse her ire and finally she abandons her play, ticket booth, posters and all and runs outdoors to take her frustrations out on the shrubbery. Wit and despair spark off one another in McEwan's acute portrayal of childhood intensity.

"It is hard to slash at nettles for long without a story imposing itself, and Briony was soon absorbed and grimly content, even though she appeared to the world like a girl in the grip of a terrible mood."

But, tiring of her heroic fantasy with the nettles, Briony returns to herself, more freighted with melancholy than before. She decides to stand on a small bridge until something happens. With perfect irony, McEwan foreshadows disaster: "She would simply wait on the bridge, calm and obstinate, until events, real events, not her own fantasies, rose to her challenge, and dared to dispel her insignificance."

The reader knows disaster is coming, but what, exactly, remains a mystery. Given Briony's dramatic capriciousness, it could be anything from murder to adolescent embarrassment. We know only that it reverberates down the years through Briony's life. And when at last it stands revealed in all its naked avoidability, McEwan jumps abruptly, jarringly, into the maelstrom of war and defeat.

Where the second section pins the reader in the horror and immediacy of Robbie's every intense moment, the first section roves from one viewpoint to another, riffling through the thoughts and feelings of each character and reflecting the characters in each other's eyes. There's competent, diplomatic Cecilia, flustered and preoccupied with Robbie's stiff behavior, and her mother, Emily, half bedridden, ineffectual and given to fusses but with a sense of herself as the matriarch with an internal finger on the pulse of the entire house, the cousins' bewilderment and insecurity, Leon's easygoing malleability, his tycoon friend's desire for a war to ensure the success of his coated chocolate bar and ardent Robbie's class uncertainties and intellectual confidence.

Psychologically nuanced, there isn't a wasted word, though the writing is not spare. Every sentence furthers the reader's understanding while moving the characters forward in their own groping self-actualization and misapprehension. At the core it's a novel about atonement, about forgiveness and unforgivability, about how some things cannot be undone. It's also a novel about love and war, emotion and intellect, society and the often clueless world of one's own head, childhood and adulthood and the gulf between. It's a novel about the process of writing, of imagination, of misunderstanding. It's an ambitious beautiful book, which succeeds on every level. You won't want it to end.

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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 . 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 …
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 …
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Lynn Harnett ()
Ranked #182
I love to read, always have, and have been writing reviews for more years than I care to say. Early on, i realized there are more books than there is time to read, so I read only books I like and mostly … 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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Coming of Age Novels


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