Readerz.Net / Ian McEwan / Atonement
Atonement is a 2001 British metafiction novel written by Ian McEwan concerning the understanding of and responding to the need for personal atonement. Set in three time periods, 1935 England, Second World War England and France, and present-day England, it covers an upper-class girl's half-innocent mistake that ruins lives, her adulthood in the shadow of that mistake, and a reflection on the nature of writing.
Widely regarded as one of McEwan's best works, it was shortlisted for the 2001 Booker Prize for fiction. In 2010, TIME magazine named Atonement in its list of the 100 greatest English-language novels since 1923.
In 2007, the book was adapted into a BAFTA and Academy Award-winning film of the same title, starring Saoirse Ronan, James McAvoy, and Keira Knightley, and directed by Joe Wright.
Briony Tallis, a 13-year-old English girl with a talent for writing, lives at her family's country estate with her parents. Her older sister Cecilia attends the University of Cambridge with Robbie Turner, the Tallis family housekeeper's son and Cecilia's childhood friend.
In the summer of 1935, Briony's maternal cousins, Lola and her twin brothers Jackson and Pierrot, visit the family after their parents are going through a divorce. Briony witnesses a moment of sexual tension between Cecilia and Robbie from afar. Briony misconstrues the situation and concludes that Robbie is acting aggressively toward Cecilia.
Robbie, meanwhile, realises he is attracted to Cecilia, whom he has not seen in some time, and writes several drafts of a love letter to her, giving a copy to Briony to deliver. However, he inadvertently gives her a version he had meant to discard, which contains lewd and vulgar references ("cunt").
Briony reads the letter and becomes disturbed as to Robbie's intentions. Later she walks in on Robbie and Cecilia making love in the library. Briony misinterprets the sexual act as rape and believes Robbie is a "maniac."
Later, at a family dinner party attended by Briony's brother Leon and his friend Paul Marshall, it is discovered that the twins have run away. The dinner party breaks into teams to search for them.
In the darkness, Briony discovers her cousin Lola being raped by an assailant she cannot clearly see. Lola is unable or unwilling to identify the attacker — strongly hinted to be Marshall — but Briony decides to accuse Robbie and identifies him to the police as the rapist, claiming she has seen Robbie's face in the dark. Robbie is taken away to prison, with only Cecilia and his mother believing his protestations of innocence.
By the time Second World War has started, Robbie has spent several years in prison. He is released on the condition he enlist in the army.
Cecilia has trained and become a nurse. She has cut off all contact with her family because of the part they took in sending Robbie to jail.
Robbie and Cecilia have only been in contact by letter, since she was not allowed to visit him in prison. Before Robbie has to go to war in France, they meet once for half an hour, during Cecilia's lunch break. Their reunion starts awkwardly, but they share a kiss before leaving each other.
In France, the war is going badly, and the army is retreating to Dunkirk. As the injured Robbie goes to that safe haven, he thinks about Cecilia and past events like teaching Briony how to swim, reflecting on Briony's possible reasons for accusing him.
His single meeting with Cecilia is the memory that keeps him walking; his only aim is seeing her again. At the end of part two, Robbie falls asleep in Dunkirk, one day before the evacuation begins.
Remorseful Briony has refused her place at Cambridge and instead is a trainee nurse in London. She has realised the full extent of her mistake and decides it was Paul Marshall, Leon's friend, whom she saw raping Lola. Briony still writes, although she does not pursue it with the same recklessness as she did as a child.
Briony is called to the bedside of Luc, a young, fatally wounded French soldier. She consoles him in his last moments by speaking with him in her school French, and he mistakes her for an English girl whom his mother wanted him to marry.
Just before his death, Luc asks, "Do you love me?" Briony replies, "Yes," not only because "no other answer was possible" but also because "for the moment, she did. He was a lovely boy far away from his family and about to die." Afterward, Briony daydreams about the life she might have had if she had married Luc and gone to live with him and his family.
Briony attends the wedding of Paul Marshall and her cousin Lola — who has decided to "marry her rapist" — before finally visiting Cecilia. Robbie is on leave from the army, and Briony meets him unexpectedly at her sister's.
Cecilia and Robbie both refuse to forgive Briony, who nonetheless tells them she will try to put things right. She promises to begin the legal procedures needed to exonerate Robbie, even though Paul Marshall will never be held responsible for his crime because of his marriage to Lola, the victim.
The final section, titled "London 1999," is narrated by Briony herself in the form of a diary entry. Now 77, she is a successful novelist who has recently been diagnosed with vascular dementia, so is facing rapid mental decline and death.
The reader learns that Briony is the author of the preceding sections of the novel. On the penultimate page, Briony reveals that Robbie Turner died of septicaemia — caused by his injury — on the beaches of Dunkirk, that Cecilia was killed by the bomb that destroyed Balham Underground station, and Briony never saw them in 1940. Briony did attend Lola's wedding to Marshall, but confesses she was too "cowardly" to visit the "recently bereaved" Cecilia to make amends. The novel — which she says is factually true apart from Robbie and Cecilia's being reunited — is her lifelong attempt at "atonement" for what she did to them.
Briony justifies her invented happy ending by saying she does not see what purpose it would serve to give readers a "pitiless" story. She writes, "I like to think that it isn't weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them at the end."
References to other literary works
Atonement contains intertextual references to a number of other literary works, including Gray's Anatomy, Virginia Woolf's The Waves, Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, Henry James' The Golden Bowl, Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, Rosamond Lehmann's Dusty Answer, and Shakespeare's The Tempest, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Twelfth Night. McEwan has also said that he was directly influenced by L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between.
Atonement contains a (fictional) letter addressed to Briony by the literary critic and editor Cyril Connolly. Like Connolly, Elizabeth Bowen is revealed to have reviewed Briony's earlier novel.
Awards and critiques
Atonement was shortlisted for the 2001 Booker Prize for fiction. It was also shortlisted for the 2001 James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the 2001 Whitbread Novel Award. It won the 2002 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction, the 2002 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, the 2002 WH Smith Literary Award, the 2002 Boeke Prize and the 2004 Santiago Prize for the European Novel. In its 1000th issue, Entertainment Weekly named the novel #82 on its list of the 100 best books from 1983-2008. Additionally, Time named it the best fiction novel of the year and included it in its All-TIME 100 Greatest Novels. The Observer cites it as one of the 100 greatest novels ever written, calling it "a contemporary classic of mesmerising narrative conviction."
In late 2006, it was reported that romance and historical author Lucilla Andrews felt that McEwan had failed to give her sufficient credit for material on wartime nursing in London sourced from her 1977 autobiography No Time for Romance. McEwan professed innocence of plagiarism while acknowledging his debt to the author. McEwan had included Andrews among the acknowledgements in the book, and several authors defended him, including John Updike, Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, Thomas Keneally, Zadie Smith, and the reclusive Thomas Pynchon.
A film adaptation, directed by Joe Wright from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton, was released by Working Title Films in September 2007 in the United Kingdom and in December 2007 in the United States.