(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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 has been raped. Although Briony had witnessed the sexual assault on her cousin, she had not truly recognized the male involved. This does not stop her, though, from pointing the finger at Robbie and convincing those around her that her version of the incident is--of course--the truth. Little does Briony know at the time, but her lie will forever alter the lives of those around her.

Robbie will spend years in jail before he is released. After his release, he will join the British Army and fight at Dunkirk. McEwan describes with astonishing force the brutality of this World War II battle. During the war, Briony becomes a nurse in London and finds herself struggling to come to terms with the past. In the final part of Atonement, McEwan flashes to the present with Briony as an elderly writer taking stock of the past. She wishes to set the record straight, to truly atone for her misdeed by employing her imagination once again in a final creative project.

Sources for Further Study

The Atlantic Monthly 289 (March, 2002): 106.

Booklist 98 (November 15, 2001): 523.

The Economist 360 (September 22, 2001): 1.

Library Journal 126 (November 15, 2001): 97.

The New Republic 226 (March 25, 2002): 28.

The New York Review of Books 49 (April 11, 2002): 24.

The New York Times, March 7, 2002, p. E1.

The New York Times Book Review 107 (March 10, 2002): 8.

The New Yorker 78 (March 4, 2002): 80.

Newsweek 139 (March 18, 2002): 62.

The Washington Post Book World, March 17, 2002, p. 1.

The Weekly Standard 7 (April 29, 2002): 43.