Atonement (Magill Book Reviews)
During the 1970’s, Ian McEwan came to the attention of the literary establishment with his extraordinary short story collection First Love, Last Rites (1975). He has continued to write compelling fiction that primarily focuses on how a person’s life can be turned upside down by love and loss. While McEwan began his writing career as an author of vibrant short stories, he turned to long fiction after the publication of his first novel, The Cement Garden, in 1978. His 1998 novel Amsterdam was awarded the prestigious Booker McConnell Prize. Considered by many critics as one of the premier authors writing in English, McEwan has outdone himself with Atonement. The novel has been favorably compared to the works of Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, and Henry James.
The novel opens on an unusually hot summer day in 1935 with the Tallis family living near London in a country house that they have inherited. Thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis, her older sister Cecilia, the three Quincey cousins, and the son of the Tallis’s housekeeper Robbie Turner find themselves all involved in a crisis at the country home. Although there is the chasm of social class, Robbie and Cecilia profess their love for each other. Briony is not sure what to make of her older sister’s affair. A would-be writer, Briony’s over-active imagination gets the better of her judgment after her fifteen-year-old cousin Lola Quincey confesses that she...
(The entire section is 461 words.)
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Atonement (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
It was commonplace in the nineteenth century English novel that the author was God—omniscient and omnipotent within the fictional universe that exists between the covers of a book. Novelists such as William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) and George Eliot (1819-1880) exercised their divine privilege through overt intrusions into the narrative to arrange the lives of their characters and to tell the reader what to think. Rejecting that model and metaphor, modernism assigns novelists a more modest role—to transcribe their characters’ states of consciousness.
Early in her illustrious literary career, Briony Tallis, dominated by the influence of Virginia Woolf, writes a novella, Two Figures by a Fountain, that fulfills her modernist ambition: “To enter a mind and show it at work, or being worked on, and to do this within a symmetrical design—this would be an artistic triumph.” However, Cyril Connolly, the legendary editor of Horizon, rejects Briony’s manuscript, complaining that it “owed a little too much to the technique of Mrs. Woolf” and is weak in narrative interest.
In her seventies, Briony, now a literary celebrity, reworks the same material into a much more complicated book with a strong story line, one that, because it draws directly on actual incidents and people, cannot be published during her own lifetime. That novel, Atonement itself, reverts to the model of nineteenth century fiction, in which a narrative deity controls everything. The text of Atonement is an attempt to rewrite history. It is Briony’s bid to repair a terrible wrong that she committed when she was thirteen. Though the book will be her gesture of atonement, Briony recognizes that atonement is submission to an external authority and that, for a sovereign author whose imagination is supreme, such submission is impossible to achieve. In her final sentences, while vascular dementia begins to deplete her memory and defeat her imagination, seventy-seven-year-old Briony asks: “How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her.” There is, nonetheless, another author, Ian McEwan, as well as a reader outside Briony Tallis, and Atonement, which she despairs of as a mere attempt at impossible atonement, succeeds despite itself.
The novel starts with and arises out of thirteen-year-old Briony’s actions during a hot summer day in 1935. On her family’s country estate in Surrey, Briony conscripts her three cousins, fifteen-year-old Lola Quincey and Lola’s nine-year-old twin brothers, Pierrot and Jackson, to perform a silly play, The Trials of Arabella, that she herself has written. The cousins, troubled by their parents’ divorce, are not very cooperative, and the production is aborted. The imperious young playwright, described as “one of those children possessed by a desire to have the world just so,” fabricates another script that reconstructs the world for everyone around her. In Briony, McEwan examines the ambiguity of his own art—the storyteller as both creator and prevaricator. Robbie Turner, the handsome, brilliant son of the Tallis family’s housekeeper, has recently graduated from Cambridge University with financial support from Briony’s father. Despite the social chasm separating them, Robbie dares to love Cecilia, Briony’s older sister, also a recent Cambridge graduate. Briony senses, without understanding it, a powerful bond between the two, but she is confirmed in her assessment that Robbie is a “maniac” when he asks her to deliver to Cecilia a lewd, sealed note that she opens and reads. Robbie had written another, less blunt letter of affection and does not realize that he has inadvertently put his crude expression of sexual longing into the envelope that he hands to Briony.
When, later in the evening, amid a confused search for the missing twins, Lola reports that she was sexually molested, Briony concocts a story in which Robbie is the culprit. Lola does not contradict her, and...
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The story opens in an almost fairy-tale setting on the luscious grounds of the Tallis family estate in Surrey, a county in southeast England. It is a balmy, hot summer day and there seems no urgency in the air. There is an atmosphere of celebration.
However, there are signs of distraction. An heirloom vase has been cracked and the dinner meal is too hot for the steamy weather. Briony, the Tallis's daughter, is hoping to put on a play but her cousins are not following directions and are disappointing as actors. Lola has usurped Briony's good will and has stolen the leading role, which Briony had saved for herself. And there are other tensions in the air. Cousin Lola has bruises all over her arms and Briony is in a panic over Robbie's sexually explicit note to Cecilia. The heat is definitely on, and it is the outdoor thermometer.
It is 1935 and a war is looming in mainland Europe. Rumors of England becoming involved in the war are circulating. But at this point, the only real mention of war in the story comes through the visitor, Paul Marshall, who is celebrating an idea he has come up with: the marketing of a chocolate bar called "Rainbow Amo." The chocolate bars will be bought by the British army and distributed as part of the rations for the fighting soldiers.
The mood of love is also in the air. Love comes in the form of in the awkward passions of Cecilia and Robbie. However, a twisted version of love has also engulfed Briony and will soon lead to tragedy. The romantic country scene will soon be demolished.
The novel then jumps to six years later. War has exploded all over Europe and is now threatening France and Belgium. Cecilia and Robbie meet for a brief time in London before Robbie ships out for France. In England, the tension over the war is still in abstract terms. People are preparing for it but have not yet become fully engaged in it.
The war of the Tallis family, however, has been fought and the...
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Breslin, John D. "Lies and War." In America, Vol. 187, No. 2, pp. 22-23.
High praise for Atonement and for the author.
Charles, Ron. "A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Terror." In Christian Science Monitor, March 14, 2002, p. 19. Charles claims Atonement might be even better than McEwan's previous Booker Prize-winning novel, Amsterdam.
Giles, Jeff. "A Novel of (Bad) Manners." In Newsweek, April 8, 2002, p. 94.
An interview with Ian McEwan.
Gussow, Mel. "Ian McEwan's Latest Novel Charts and Emotional Journey." In New York Times, April 23, 2002, p. E.1. Gussow provides a glimpse into McEwan's process of writing...
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Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Concha, Ángeles de la. “Unravelling Conventions: Or, The Ethics of Deconstruction in Ian McEwan’s Atonement.” In The Ethical Component in Experimental British Fiction Since the 1960’s, edited by Susana Onega and Jean-Michel Ganteau. Newcastle, England: Cambridge Scholars, 2007. Discusses Atonement as an ethical act of moral reparation that is dependent upon its experimental form. Part of a volume of essays on postmodern ethics, traditional morality, and the novel’s ability to balance experiment with realism in such as way as to become a space for ethical consciousness.
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