Known for telling stories about problematic teens and dysfunctional family relationships, Ian McEwan does not stray too far from his roots in Atonement. The first half of the novel focuses on one day in a seemingly idyllic setting, when suddenly everything goes wrong. At the core of the whirlwind circumstances that change the lives of the people around her is a thirteen-year-old girl with a significant imagination and maybe just a touch of cruelty in her eyes.
When she was ten, Briony Tallis confessed her pre-teen infatuation for Robbie Turner, the twenty-year-old son of the Tallis family's housekeeper. Three years later, when the novel opens, Briony witnesses Robbie and Briony's older sister, Cecilia, flirting with one another. Briony, through interior monologue, does not understand what is going on between Robbie and Cecilia. She is disturbed when she reads a note Robbie has sent to Cecilia that has obvious sexual overtones. When she catches Robbie and Cecilia in a dark corner of the family's library in the throes of passionate sex, Briony fears for her sister's life. Or at least, that is what she tells the reader. That might even be what she tells herself. However, this does not fully explain what she does next.
At the end of celebratory dinner, which includes Briony's family, three visiting cousins, and a wealthy friend, Briony's nine-year-old twin cousins excuse themselves from the table, leaving behind a note that states they are running away. In the dark of a hot summer night, the family goes out onto the grounds of the family estate and search for the missing boys. While all the other family members are calling out the boys' names, Briony is by herself, scheming.
Briony happens upon her sixteen-year-old cousin Lola, who is crying. As Briony approaches, a male figure recedes into further darkness. Lola has been raped. Briony, still under the influence of her fear and disappointment, identifies the rapist as Robbie. And so the disintegration of the family begins. Robbie is sentenced to jail. Cecilia cuts ties with her family. Lola and her rapist hide behind the lie. And Briony is left to atone for her sin.
Briony Tallis, age thirteen, wants her Quincy cousins to perform in a play she has written to celebrate her brother Leon’s visit from London with his friend, Paul Marshall. Cecilia Tallis and Robbie Turner, formerly childhood friends, are both back from Cambridge, where they have become distant. When he tries to help her fill a valuable vase with water at a fountain, it breaks; in frustration, Cecilia strips to her underwear in front of him and dives in to recover the pieces. Briony observes this scene from the house and is troubled by what she sees. Meanwhile, her cousin Lola, age fifteen, undermines Briony’s plans for the play, and rehearsals are abandoned. Briony walks out to the grounds in frustration.
Leon and Paul arrive from London and, meeting Robbie on the way in, invite him to dinner that night. At his mother’s cottage, Robbie writes to Cecilia to apologize about the vase and explain his feelings for her. In one hastily written draft, he describes his desire in explicitly sexual terms; he abandons that version and writes a more appropriate one. On his way across the grounds, he encounters Briony and asks her to take his letter to Cecilia. Only as she reaches the house does he realize he put the sexually explicit letter in the envelope. By the time Cecilia meets him at the door with the letter in her hand, Briony has already read it.
Briony shares the information in the letter as well as the scene by the fountain with Lola; they decide Robbie is dangerous and Cecilia needs protection. Cecilia confronts Robbie in the library, and after they confess their affection for each other, they make love. Briony finds them and believes Robbie is attacking her sister. They all go down to dinner without speaking.
The meal is interrupted by the news that Jackson and Pierrot have run away; everyone disperses to look for them. In the darkness, Briony comes across a man and Lola having sex in the grass. The man sneaks off, and Briony believes it was Robbie; Lola does not contradict her. By the time Robbie returns to the house in the early dawn, bringing the two boys with him, the police are waiting to arrest him. He is convicted of rape and sent to prison; only Cecilia and his mother believe he is innocent.
Five years later, Robbie is in the British army in France, retreating after the fall of the Maginot line. He hides a wound in his side from his two comrades as they make their way to Dunkirk for evacuation. On the way, they dodge attacks by German bombers and attempt to help refugees. For comfort, Robbie thinks about Cecilia and their single meeting between his release from prison and basic training; Cecilia has cut herself off from her family and become a nurse in London, where they met for tea. They made plans to visit a cottage together, but war was declared and Robbie was shipped to France. In the chaos of Dunkirk, he and his comrades wait for the boats to evacuate them to England. His wound grows worse, and he becomes delirious.
Briony, now eighteen, has also entered nursing studies. She has begun to understand that she was mistaken about Robbie and Cecilia, and her doubts are confirmed when she learns that Paul Marshall and Lola Quincy are getting married. Her studies are accelerated when the evacuees begin arriving from France, and she experiences the horrors of nursing wounded soldiers.
On her day off, Briony walks across London to witness Lola and Paul’s wedding. In their refusal to acknowledge her, she sees confirmation of her suspicions that Paul was guilty, not Robbie. She continues on to her sister’s flat and explains that she wants to recant her earlier testimony. Robbie is visiting Cecilia as well. They are pleased that she will tell the truth about Lola and Paul but show no signs of forgiveness. Briony returns to the hospital determined to write a story that will atone for what she did.
Half a century later, Briony has just finished the novel which forms the earlier portions of Atonement. She knows that it cannot be published until after Paul and Lola are dead because they would sue her if it were. She has also just learned that she is losing her memory to vascular dementia. She returns to the Tallis country home, now a hotel, for a family reunion in honor of her birthday. After the party, she stays up late writing and thinking about her attempts to atone for her crime by writing Cecilia and Robbie’s story; she admits that she has changed their ending to bring them together, when in fact they both died without seeing one another, or her, ever again.
For many, Atonement is McEwan’s best novel. The reviews were positive, with some grumbling about the ending. Atonement contains three parts—the first set in1935, the second two in 1940—followed by an epilogue occurring in 1999.
Part 1 opens in the country home of the Tallis family. It includes the “Old Man,” as his children call their father, absent in London, perhaps preparing for war or evading the wife with headaches; his son, Leon, twenty-three; daughter Cecilia, twenty-two; and daughter Briony, thirteen. The family almost includes the cleaning lady’s son, Robbie Turner, because the “Old Man” virtually adopted him after Robbie’s father ran off when Robbie was six. Mr. Tallis paid Robbie’s way at Cambridge and may send him to medical school. Like Cecilia, Robbie is an English major, and he finished his degree with a “first,” or “A,” compared to her “third.” The Tallises are presently hosting Mrs. Tallis’s niece, Lola, fifteen, and twin nephews, whose mother ran away with another man. Leon has invited his friend, Paul Marshall, heir to a chocolate factory, to visit. When Cecilia strips to her underwear to retrieve the missing piece of a Meissen vase from the garden fountain, Robbie suddenly falls in love with her.
In the letter he writes to declare his love, Robbie makes a disastrous Freudian slip by referring to Cecilia’s genitalia with a word he had just read in D. H. Lawrence’s notorious novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). To compound his tragic error, he enlists Briony as the letter carrier; she reads the letter and later witnesses Cecilia and Robbie in the library, making love so passionately that she misinterprets it as rape. Searching for the missing twins that night, Briony encounters Lola and a rapist, whom she misidentifies as the insatiable Robbie. Robbie is tried and condemned to a long prison sentence.
Part 2 jolts the narrative forward to World War II, when Robbie, now a soldier, is part of the British retreat to Dunkirk. Amid incredibly realistic wartime reportage—remarkable because, like Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage (1895), McEwan never was a soldier—the narrative focuses solely on Robbie’s consciousness and his memories of Cecilia. These memories keep him alive, especially those of love-making in the library, interrupted by Briony’s intrusion. The scene of passionate sexual initiation has been praised by the American novelist John Updike and the English critic Terry Eagleton as the most beautifully erotic scene since Lawrence.
In part 3, Cecilia works as a nurse in London, living with a recuperating Robbie. Briony is also a nurse in London, and she is now willing to testify that Robbie was not a rapist. After Briony visits Cecilia and Robbie, she attends the wedding of Cousin Lola and Paul Marshall, where it is revealed that Marshall was the man who raped Lola. Most readers are unprepared for the next jolt, as part 3 ends with the words, “BT, London, 1999.”
The “BT” is Briony Tallis, a successful novelist, who is seventy-seven years old in 1999. She, not some unidentified third-person narrator, has been telling this story.
The epilogue takes place in a few hours as Briony prepares for a birthday party at Tallis House, now a hotel, where the dinner guests are to assemble in the library. After Briony introduces several unimportant relatives, she reveals the novel’s major epiphany: The ending to “her” novel in part 3 was pure fiction. Robbie actually died of blood poisoning in Dunkirk, and Cecilia died in a London bombing three months after Lola and Paul Marshall’s wedding. After many drafts of the novel, this is the version she will publish once the Marshalls have died, the only version with a happy ending, which she thinks is the best form of atonement for her false accusation that Robbie was the rapist. Soon, all the “real” people will be dead, but Robbie and Cecilia will live out the ages in Briony’s novel, reunited in the end.