Book title: Atonement
Author: Ian McEwan
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Publication Date: 2001

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Set in the heat wave summer of 1935, the first part of Atonement introduces us to the Tallis family. Youngest daughter, Briony - a child 'possessed by the desire to have the world just so' (p.4) - is preparing a play to welcome home older brother Leon and his friend Paul Marshall. Oldest daughter, Cecilia, having returned from University, is frustrated by inertia: 'She could not remain here, she knew she should make plans, but she did nothing' (p.21). Mother, Emily, is in fragile health, at any moment in danger of triggering one of her migraines. As the shadow of war grows Father, Jack, is almost permanently absent in London on mysterious Ministry business. Jack financially supports Robbie Turner who has 'an interesting combination in a man, intelligence and sheer bulk' (p.25-26). Into this delicate mix are thrown Emily's niece and two nephews, the victims of divorce.

Just over a day later the lives of the Tallis family will have irrevocably changed. Boundaries of maturity, behaviour and innocence will have been crossed. A crime will have been committed, a suspect caught, and the need of atonement for transgressions seen. This pattern will haunt the guilty party for a lifetime, allowing the book to examine, 'How guilt refined the methods of self-torture, threading the beads of detail into an eternal loop, a rosary to be fingered for a lifetime' (p173).



Ian McEwan is the author of two collections of short stories, eight novels and several film scripts. His novel Amsterdam won the Booker Prize in 1998, while Atonement was nominated in 2001, but did not win. Atonement features a character with vascular dementia, which McEwan's mother suffers from, and a walk-on part for his father.

The word atonement has strong religious connotations involving the turning away of divine wrath. Ian McEwan, an atheist, defines atonement as a 'reconciliation with self', having split the word into three constituent parts: At-one-ment (The Observer, September 16th, 2001).



  1. Do you like this book? Why?
  2. How does this book compare and contrast with Ian McEwan's other novels?
  3. Why do you think the book is called Atonement?
  4. Would you have chosen the same cover image? Why or why not?
  5. What do you think the quote from Northanger Abbey means in relation to the book?
  6. Did the ending surprise you? In what ways?
  7. Who is your favourite character? Why?
  8. What kind of atmosphere does McEwan create? How does it aid the story?
  9. Do you sympathise with Briony? Can you understand why she acted as she did?
  10. What boundaries are crossed in the story? How is 'growing-up' used to illustrate this?
  11. What is said about the nature of writing? What challenges does this raise?
  12. How are the notions of guilt and forgiveness developed in the book? How do the characters try to make amends?
  13. Do you think justice is done in the book? Why/why not?
  14. What is the role of fantasy and daydreaming in the story? Can 'the truth' ever be known?
  15. Trace the interactions of Robbie and Cecilia. How does their relationship sustain them both? What does this say about love?
  16. Do you agree with Ian McEwan's definition of atonement? How might you want to alter it?
  17. 'I was in love with Briony and all her mistakes' (Ian McEwan, The Observer, 16 September, 2001). Why do you think we sometimes love mistakes in other people? What might God think of our mistakes? How can we deal with this?
  18. 'I went recently to comfort a friend who had lost a child. She asked me "How are your boys?" I could barely bring myself to tell her they were very well' (Ian McEwan, The Observer, 16 September, 2001). How would you have answered the question?
  19. 'I knew the making-love-in-the-library scene had got to be a glorious, transcendent experience. But I told myself: you're going to have to describe a f***' (Ian McEwan, The Observer, 16 September, 2001). Do you agree that sex should be a 'glorious, transcendent experience'? How does a Christian understanding of the right context for sex help preserve this?
  20. 'Freud asked himself what the ingredients of a fulfilling life were and - with amazing practicality - decided that they were good health, interesting work and fulfilling personal relationships' (Ian McEwan, The Observer, 16 September, 2001). Are these good ingredients? Are there any missing? What about the Christian belief that only a relationship with God through Jesus Christ brings ultimate fulfilment? 

Author: James Murkett
© Copyright: James Murkett 2002