a Home | Search Clare County Library Catalogue | Search this Website

Atonement by Ian McEwan
Published by Jonathan Cape, 2001

The story opens at the Tallis family's country home in England on a hot sultry day in 1935. Cecilia Tallis, the eldest daughter, has returned from Cambridge. She and Robbie Turner have been studying there. Robbie's mother works as cleaning lady for the Tallis family. Mr. Tallis who works away in London has funded his education. Briony, aged 13, is the youngest Tallis daughter. She is a budding writer with a fertile imagination. The mother, Emily, suffers from chronic migraine and appears only at irregular intervals. Three young cousins have come to stay following the break up of their parents' marriage. The twin boys Jackson and Pierrot are 9 years old and their sister Lola is 15. All are awaiting the arrival of Leon Tallis, the adored son. He returns home with a friend, Paul Marshall (the chocolate millionaire).

It appears that Robbie and Cecilia have "feeling" for one another. He inadvertently sends an explicit note to Cecilia via Briony. Briony's curiosity gets the better of her and she reads the note.

Later that day , Lola is sexually assaulted in the grounds of the house. Briony's knowledge of the note and the assault on Lola combined with Briony's imaginative powers lead quickly to the arrest of Robbie. There are devastating consequences for those involved. This is the act for which Briony seeks atonement.

Part two is set during World War 2 in France where Robbie is involved in the evacuation at Dunkirk. Meanwhile, Briony trains as a nurse in a London hospital where she tries to alleviate her guilt. There are gruesome scenes as casualties pour in from Dunkirk.
In the final pages we meet Briony, now an elderly novelist. And then comes the twist in the plot.

This is a story of love and war, guilt and blame. It is well written with a believable storyline. The book begins at a slow pace. Some Book Club readers felt that nothing much happened in the early chapters. Certainly, it was not gripping in the early stages but it was very atmospheric and there is an ominous sense of foreboding throughout. Part two is in complete contrast to part one. The war scenes in France are described in vivid detail and obviously well researched. It depicts graphically the hospital scenes in London. The twist in the closing pages needs careful reading (perhaps re-reading). Our overall assessment is divided. "Atonement" is either - (a) not worth the money or (b) a life changing book!
A difficult book to review as a group - it will be loved and hated in equal measure.

Reviewed by a local Book Club