Atonement (Review)


Ian McEwan, 2002
480 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
January 2007

His fellow Brits once dubbed him "Ian Macabre" due to his string of dazzling yet morbid novels.

But this time around, Ian McEwan has written a gorgeous, lush book, taking on the genteel shades of Jane Austen, specifically her Northanger Abbey and its young heroine with the over-active imagination that lands her in so much trouble.

McEwan begins his story in 1935 on the Tallis family’s country estate. The plot revolves around a false accusation made by 13-year-old Briony Tallis—a sort of innocence gone awry. Her lie is compounded by chance mishaps and willful malignance. The sad consequences lead Briony to spend years working to atone for her guilt, first as a young nurse during World War II and finally as a well-known author in 1999.

But McEwan moves beyond Austen's staid world of 19th-century fiction. He moves in a modernist direction: like Virginia Woolf, he uses multiple voices and time periods. Like post-modernist John Fowles (as in The French Lieutenant’s Woman), he shifts endings and realities.

If I've made Atonement sound dry and academic, it isn’t! It’s a compelling, beautiful narrative—told with grace and compassion. You care deeply for these characters because McEwan does. And you know at once, from the opening lines of the book, that you’re in the hands of a masterful writer.

And don't miss the gorgeous 2007 film adaptation with James McAvoy and Keira Knightly. If you're in a book club, compare various film scenes with those in the book.

See our Reading Guide for Atonement.

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