Author: Ian McEwan
This haunting story commences on an unbearable, humid summer day in 1935 in the English countryside. The precocious 13-year-old Briony Tallis is staging a play that she has written in honor of her brother Leon’s homecoming. The cast is comprised of her three cousins, the Quincys, who have recently come to live with the somewhat aristocratic Tallis family due to a scandalous divorce. However, the play never makes it to the stage due to Briony’s epiphany regarding her life as a writer. She is not meant to be a playwright, no, she is meant to be a novelist. Her realization causes her to unleash a series of events that destroy the lives of the Tallis family and their cleaning lady’s son, Robbie. Briony falsely accuses the promising Robbie of raping her cousin Lola and he is sent to prison based solely on her accusation. Briony’s elder sister Cecilia had recently fallen in love with Robbie and she promptly cuts herself off from the Tallis family and starts nursing school. Cecilia never doubts Robbie’s innocence and continues to love him faithfully until he emerges from prison. However, once he is released from prison, World War II has reared its ugly head and Robbie finds himself in France at the Battle of Dunkirk. At the same time, Briony has recently turned eighteen and she surprisingly decides to start a career in nursing. This is one manifestation of her attempt to atone for what she did to Robbie and her sister, Cecilia. However, she goes even further and contacts Cecilia and Robbie and informs them that she wants to legally recant the charges she made as a thirteen-year-old girl. The story concludes in the present day (1999) and the elderly Briony not only informs the reader of what has become of the Tallis family, but what has become of her as a novelist.
Geographical Setting: England, France
Time Period: 1935-1940, Present Day (1999)
This multi-faceted, literary novel won the 2002 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. It is a compelling read in which the story line emphasizes the psychological angst of the main characters. The events of a single day destroy the lives of at least three characters in the novel and the magnanimity of their sorrow, pain, and desperation is what pushes the reader through all 371 pages. McEwan includes descriptions of historical events, architectural details, and social mores. He successfully creates the mood of pre-World War II England. McEwan specifically devotes a chapter to the Battle of Dunkirk along with detailed descriptions of soldiers in the hospital after they have returned from battle. Another appeal factor is the way in which McEwan not only explores Briony’s fateful choices as an adolescent, but he powerfully concludes the novel by exploring her choices as a writer as told by Briony in the first person. The novel opens with a quote from Jane Austen’s, Northanger Abbey, and McEwan makes references to other authors throughout such as Auden, Housman, and Freud. The story is told from several viewpoints and is primarily in the third person, ending in the first person. Ultimately, this novel takes an unforgiving look at just how cruel fate can be.
Read-alikes: McEwan has written extensively and if you enjoyed Atonement, then you should explore some of his other work. Particularly, Black Dogs and Saturday. Black Dogs explores the conflicted marriage of June and Bernard Tremaine through the eyes of their son-in-law. Just like the Tallises, the Tremaines lives were forever changed in a single moment early on in their marriage. The novel has historical elements relating to World War II, Communism, and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. Saturday is McEwan’s most recent work and takes place during the present day in London. Like Atonement, this novel explores fate on both an individual and societal level. It is the story of a neuro-surgeon who completely understands the functions of the human brain, but who has little understanding of the thoughts and feelings that emanate from the mind. If you are looking for a historical literary work that takes place in England then you should try, Birdsong: A Novel of Love and War by Sebastian Faulks. This novel has been compared to the sagas dramatized on Masterpiece Theatre and it depicts a tragic love story that takes place during World War I. The emphasis in this novel figures prominently on the details of war as opposed to the psychology of the characters. Another novel that is set in England and explores the disintegration of an aristocratic family is Evelyn Waugh’s, Brideshead Revisited. This story takes place in between World War I and World War II and explores the ramifications of Roman Catholicism on the aristocratic Marchmain family. The story also touches deeply on the subjects of love and war. You should try, The Night Watch by Sarah Waters if you are interested in a literary work that has both an English historical focus along with a psychological focus. This novel takes place during World War II and focuses on the relationships between four individuals living in London. Water’s interweaves historical detail into the lives of the characters whose love relationships are mostly same-sex. If you are primarily interested in reading about the destruction of a family due to a single incident, then you should not miss Arundhati Roy’s, The God of Small Things. This story is set in India and focuses on several generations of the once prosperous Ipes family whose lives are forever changed due to a tragic accident in 1969. It delves heavily into the psychological concepts of betrayal and childhood. Again, if you are looking for a story about the repercussions of childhood betrayal that bleed into adulthood, then you should not miss Khaled Hosseini’s, The Kite Runner. Although this story takes place in Afghanistan, it depicts the history and destruction of the country.
Red Flags: There is one fairly graphic sex scene early on in the novel along with a note written by Robbie that contains the “c” word. There is also the rape of a young girl. The atrocities of war are graphically depicted and include death, violent injury, and psychological damage.