Atonement: Ian McEwan's tragic novel of love and betrayal


  • Author:  Ian McEwan  (b. 1948)
  • Rank:  #53
  • Published:  Jonathan Cape
  • Publisher:  2001
  • Pages:  351
  • First Line:  “The play – for Which Briony had designed the posters, programs and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crêpe paper – was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch.”
  • Last Line:  “But now I must sleep.”
  • Acclaim:  Booker Prize shortlist, National Book Critics Circle Award; All-TIME List
  • Film:  2007  –  ****; #2 film of 2007  (dir. Joe Wright)
  • First Read:  Fall, 2005

The Novel: “It was her own discovery.  It was her story, the one that was writing itself around her.”  And so it is, this story of Briony Tallis.  She is a young girl who is learning to be a writer (“A world could be made in five pages, and one that was more pleasing than a model farm.”), but she is also starting to learn about life.  As we learn later in the novel, she has begun the first stirrings of love, but she has not yet learned much about it.  In fact, she has not learned enough about life yet, given the circumstances that she soon falls privy to: “Unseen, from, two stories up, with the benefit of unambiguous sunlight, she had privileged access across the years to adult behavior, to rites and conventions she knew nothing about, as yet.”

She is living in a stately house in England between the wars.  She is forced to endure the presence of her cousins, who are forced out of their own house due to their parents marital problems (“She vaguely knew that divorce was an affliction, but she did not regard it as a proper subject, and gave it no thought.  It was a mundane unraveling that could not be reversed, and therefore offered no opportunities to the storyteller: it belonged in the realm of disorder.”), but she can use them in the play she has written to celebrate the return of her older brother.  But the play gets lost in the emotions of the day.  She witnesses something outside between her sister, Cecilia, and Robbie, the gardener and son of their char-woman whose education at Cambridge has been sponsored by the family.  She thinks she understands what she is seeing, but in fact does not.  Yet, she is forced to make an unprepared step into adulthood by witnessing these actions and more and her inability to understand what is going on will be the downfall of three different lives (“The very complexity of her feelings confirmed Briony in her views that she was entering an arena of adult emotion and dissembling from which her writing was bound to benefit.”)

All of these actions we see through Briony’s eyes.  McEwan’s novel is not written in first person, but in third person limited and we can only understand what we see as Briony understands it.  This alone would showcase the brilliance of the novel.  But we also get another view, the view from Robbie and Cecilia and we not only begin to understand more than Briony does, but more than Robbie or Cecilia do either.  McEwan’s prose cuts right to the core of their relationship when Robbie accidentally breaks a vase and Cecilia strips off her dress to dive in after the pieces: “Denying his help, and possibility of making amends, was his punishment.  The unexpectedly freezing water that caused her to gasp was his punishment.  She held her breath, and sank, leaving her hair fanned out across the surface.  Drowning herself would be his punishment.”  The sight of Cecilia, dripping wet, brings Robbie’s feelings to the forefront and the carnal offerings in the note that he accidentally sends to Cecilia trigger hers.  When they have a moment together in the library, all of the emotions of their entire lives, the kind of emotions you absolutely weren’t allowed to express in an English country house between the wars, come to the surface, emotions and actions triggered together (“Despite these limitations, it did not surprise them how clearly they knew their own needs.”).  But this too, like the scene by the fountain and the very words in the note is witnessed by Briony and she will come to believe something that never happens.

We then get a long extended sequence of Robbie making his way across France and Belgium, retreating to the sea.  It is one of the most famous actions of the war – the evacuation from Dunkirk, and Robbie hopes to be alive at the end of it.  His struggles to stay alive, to make it back to a Cecilia who has never left him, make for one of the most heart-wrenching depictions of the war and its human cost.

Then we are back in England.  Briony is eighteen now and has become a nurse and is struggling to make amends for what has gone wrong.  She goes to see her sister and what follows is a gut-wrenching scene of familial betrayal as Briony finally comes to understand what she has done and what she needs to do (“Weak, stupid, confused, cowardly, evasive – she had hated herself for everything she had been, but she had never thought of herself as a liar.”).

All of this put together forms the core of McEwan’s novel, one of the best of the decade, a modern version of Thomas Hardy’s depressing naturalism.  But then we get the final part of the book and we really understand what has happened.  We see a 77 year-old Briony and see what has become of her and her family and in those final pages everything is laid clear.  The title, the word atonement, stands for everything that she is unable to do.  She plays God, as all writers do, she does what she can with her characters and in the end, she has the final say.  But perhaps that is the problem with everything she has tried to do: “There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her.”  As she realizes, “No atonement for God.”  And perhaps that would be a perfect final word, so much an echo of that brilliant final line from The Quiet American (“how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry.”), but then she has something more, something that makes you realize that she knows how much all of this has cost her:  “I gave them happiness but I was not so self-serving as to let them forgive me.”

the magnificent 2007 film version of Atonement

The Film: Losses do not get the cinematic treatment in the way that victories do.  There are several films that have depicted D-Day, the best of course being Saving Private Ryan in its stark, brutal depicment of the invasion.  And, as one of the most dramatic developments of the war, it deserved its day on the big screen.  But reading Atonement, already aware that there was a film version in the works, my hope revolved around what the film-makers would do with Dunkirk.  Here we have one of the most dramatic events in modern history, one which absolutely deserved its day on screen and it had never been done proper justice.  Aside from the brilliance of the novel, the tragic romance, the crime, what I most wanted to see was how they handled Dunkirk.

I could not have been more impressed.  What unfolds on screen is one of the most amazing shots in cinematic history.  From the moment that Robbie first spies the beach and the ensuing evacuation to the break, over four and a half minutes later, we have the entire majesty of the “miracle of deliverance” on screen exactly as it has deserved to be.  We can finally understand how, in a nine day stretch, over 300,000 soldiers were evacuated from the beaches and the harbor.  This is the prologue to D-Day, the flight that precedes the fight.  Absolutely everything is as it should be – the ships, the troops, the acting, the direction.  When the film first opened the shot was all anyone could talk about.

Well, the shot and the dress.  Because there is the human element to this story of course, the tragic doomed love between Cecilia and Robbie.  But everything about this film is perfectly adapted from the book and their brief moment together in the library is enhanced by the magnificent green dress made for Kiera Knightley for the film – a dress so magnificent that it was later voted the best dress in film history.

There are the performances as well.  Somehow neither Knightley nor James McAvoy earned Oscar nominations, but young Saorise Ronan, in a performance that instantly made her a star as the youngest version of Briony, was.  But all three versions were pitch perfect – from the intense, misunderstanding Ronan to the nervous, over-wrought performance of Romola Garai as the 18 year-old, and finally, magnificent Vanessa Redgrave, striving for atonement, knowing full well in her old age that she will never find it.

And then I must save my final words for the score.  During the opening scenes, as Briony moves so quickly around the house, movements so perfectly fore-shadowed in that magnificent opening line of the novel, we hear the Dario Marianelli, with type-writer bursts accompanying each step that she takes.  There have been better scores in film history, but has any score so perfectly matched the action and movements of an individual character as the opening music in Atonement?