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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Ian McEwan

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To purchase Atonement

Title: Atonement
Author: Ian McEwan
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001
Length: 351 pages
Availability: Atonement - US
Atonement - UK
Atonement - Canada
Atonement - India
Expiation - France
Abbitte - Deutschland
Espiazione - Italia
Expiación - España
  • Atonement was shortlisted for the 2001 Booker Prize
  • 2003 National Book Critics Circle award winner
  • Atonement was made into a film in 2007, directed by Joe Wright and starring Keira Knightley

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Our Assessment:

A : a good story, a good read, very well done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic Monthly . 3/2002 Claire Messud
Christian Science Monitor A 14/3/2002 Ron Charles
Commonweal A 3/5/2002 Edward T. Wheeler
The Economist A+ 22/9/2001 .
Entertainment Weekly A 20/3/2002 Troy Patterson
L'Express . 18/9/2003 André Clavel
FAZ . 31/8/2002 .
The Guardian . 22/9/2001 Geoff Dyer
The Independent . 15/9/2001 Boyd Tonkin
The Lancet . 22/12/2001 Terry Eagleton
London Review of Books . 4/10/2001 Frank Kermode
Le Monde . 28/8/2003 Florence Noiville
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 8/10/2002 Uwe Pralle
The New Republic . 25/3/2002 James Wood
New Statesman . 17/9/2001 Robert Winder
New York A 18/3/2002 Daniel Mendelsohn
The NY Observer . 18/3/2002 Adam Begley
The NY Rev. of Books . 11/4/2002 John Lanchester
The NY Times . 7/3/2002 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. A 10/3/2002 Tom Shone
The New Yorker . 4/3/2002 John Updike
The Observer . 23/9/2001 Hermione Lee
Salon . 21/3/2002 Laura Miller
San Francisco Chronicle . 10/3/2002 David Wiegand
The Spectator . 15/9/2001 Anita Brookner
Sunday Times A+ 16/9/2001 Peter Kemp
Time . 25/3/2002 Richard Lacayo
The Times . 12/9/2001 Russell Celyn Jones
The Times . 22/9/2001 Jason Cowley
TLS A+ 28/9/2001 Robert MacFarlane
Wall St. Journal . 15/3/2002 Francis X. Rocca
The Washington Post A+ 17/3/2002 Jonathan Yardley
Die Zeit . (39/2002) Evelyn Finger

  Review Consensus:

  Only a few with a few reservations -- but most are very, very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "The extraordinary range of Atonement suggests that there's nothing McEwan can't do. (…) We're each of us, McEwan suggests, composing our lives." - Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor

  • "A challenging and brilliant work, it rewards careful attention to the writer's art. (…) The careful structuring of the work calls attention to its artifice and reminds us of two alternate assertions about what art does: Keats's Romantic assurance that artistic beauty is truth and Auden's disclaimer that poetry makes nothing happen. This novel shows how such seemingly contradictory statements can both be true at once. Atonement is a most impressive book, one that may indeed be McEwan's finest achievement." - Edward T. Wheeler, Commonweal

  • "It is rare for a critic to feel justified in using the word "masterpiece", but Ian McEwan's new book really deserves to be called one. (…) Atonement (…) is a work of astonishing depth and humanity." - The Economist

  • "Refracting an upper-class nightmare through a war story, McEwan fulfills the conventions he's playing with, and that very play -- in contrast to so much fashionable pomo cleverness -- leads to genuine heartbreak." - Troy Patterson, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Avec des pages d'une subtilité époustouflante: spéléologue de nos abîmes intérieurs, McEwan nous offre une magistrale autopsie de la fragilité humaine, au fil d'un roman qui chatoie comme de la soie. Et qui brûle d'une lumière noire, lorsqu'il explore les inextricables ténèbres de l'âme." - André Clavel, L'Express

  • "In Abbitte widmet sich Ian McEwan seinen alten, den großen Themen -- Liebe und Trennung, Unschuld und Selbsterkenntnis, dem Verstreichen von Zeit --, und er tut dies souveräner, sprachmächtiger und fesselnder denn je." - Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "If Atonement tells an engrossing story, supremely well, it also meditates, from start to end, on story-telling and its pitfalls. (…) McEwan has never written into, and out of, literary history so brazenly before." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "Suffice to say, any initial hesitancy about style -- any fear that, for once, McEwan may not be not in control of his material -- all play their part in his larger purpose. On the one hand, McEwan seems to be retrospectively inserting his name into the pantheon of British novelists of the 1930s and 1940s. But he is also, of course, doing more than this" - Geoff Dyer, The Guardian

  • "All this is at the same time an allegory of art and its moral contradictions. (…) (I)t is not hard to read this novel as McEwan's own atonement for a lucrative lifetime of magnificent professional lying. I haven't yet read Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang that beat this novel to the Booker Prize. But it must be stupendous." - Terry Eagleton, The Lancet

  • "Ian McEwan's new novel (…) strikes me as easily his finest (…..) McEwan's skill has here developed to the point where it gives disquiet as well as pleasure. (…) It is, in perhaps the only possible way, a philosophical novel, pitting the imagination against what it has to imagine if we are to be given the false assurance that there is a match between our fictions and the specifications of reality. The pleasure it gives depends as much on our suspending belief as on our suspending disbelief." - Frank Kermode, London Review of Books

  • "Il n'est pas sûr qu'Expiation soit, comme on l'a dit, le livre le plus abouti de Ian McEwan. Des longueurs (les scènes de guerre), l'artifice final (le roman dans le roman) peuvent justifier qu'on continue de lui préférer l'étonnant thriller psychologique qu'était Délire d'amour. Mais, pour la première fois, McEwan s'aventure sur les terrains intimes de la nostalgie, du souvenir, de l'extrême fragilité des liens entre les êtres." - Florence Noiville, Le Monde

  • "Abbitte gehört zu den seltenen Romanen, die so makellos komponiert sind, dass man sie kaum aus der Hand legt, bevor nicht die letzte Seite umgeblättert ist. Über weite Strecken ist er geradezu ein Roman comme il faut. (…) Daran wird auch wenig ändern, dass ihm -- typisch McEwan -- wieder einmal eine Kleinigkeit gründlich missraten ist. "London 1999", der knapp dreissigseitige Schlussteil, hat das Zeug, als einer der verunglücktesten Romanschlüsse in die englische Literaturhistorie einzugehen." - Uwe Pralle, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "(C)ertainly his finest and most complex novel. (…) Atonement is both a criticism of fiction and a defense of fiction; a criticism of its shaping and exclusive torque, and a defense of its ideal democratic generosity to all. A criticism of fiction's misuse; and a defense of an ideal." - James Wood, The New Republic

  • "On one level, it is manifestly high-calibre stuff: cool, perceptive, serious and vibrant with surprises. (…) So it is probably silly to waste time pointing out that the most glaring aspects of the book are its weaknesses and omissions. As usual, McEwan has contrived a good story; but he seems weirdly reluctant to tell it." - Robert Winder, New Statesman

  • "(T)his book, McEwan's grandest and most ambitious yet, is much more than the story of a single act of atonement. (…) It isn't, in fact, until you get to the surprising coda of this ravishingly written book that you begin to see the beauty of McEwan's design -- and the meaning of his title. (…) (T)rust me, Atonement's postmodern surprise ending is the perfect close to a book that explores, with beauty and rigor, the power of art and the limits of forgiveness. Briony Tallis may need to atone, but Ian McEwan has nothing to apologize for." - Daniel Mendelsohn, New York.

  • "Atonement will make you happy in at least three ways: It offers a love story, a war story and a story about stories, and so hits the heart, the guts and the brain. It’s Ian McEwan’s best novel (…..) Atonement is the work of a novelist at peak power; we may hope for more to come." - Adam Begley, The New York Observer

  • "(I)f it's plot, suspense and a Bergsonian sensitivity to the intricacies of individual consciousnesses you want, then McEwan is your man and Atonement your novel. It is his most complete and compassionate work to date." - Tom Shone, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The writing is conspicuously good (…) it works an authentic spell." - John Updike, The New Yorker

  • "(I)mpressive, engrossing, deep and surprising (…..) Atonement asks what the English novel of the twenty-first century has inherited, and what it can do now." - Hermione Lee, The Observer

  • "Ian McEwan's latest novel is a dark, sleek trap of a book. (…) Lying is, after all, what Atonement is about as much as it is about guilt, penitence or, for that matter, art." - Laura Miller, Salon

  • "(F)lat-out brilliant (…..) McEwan's writing is lush, detailed, vibrantly colored and intense." - David Wiegand, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Whether Briony’s conscience can ever be clear, and, more important, whether McEwan’s purpose can be adequately served by such a device, is open to question. That these are troubling matters is certainly well established. The ending, however, is too lenient. (…) Here his suave attempts to establish morbid feelings as inspiration for a life’s work -- and for that work to be crowned with success -- are unconvincing." - Anita Brookner, The Spectator

  • "It might almost be a novel by Elizabeth Bowen. (...) Both sections are immeasurably the most powerful that McEwan, already a master of narrative suspense and horror, has ever written. (...) Subtle as well as powerful, adeptly encompassing comedy as well as atrocity, Atonement is a richly intricate book. Unshowy symmetries and patterns underlie its emotional force and psychological compulsion." - Peter Kemp, Sunday Times

  • "So much for the virtues of the imagination. But McEwan is crafty. Even as he shows us the damages of story-telling, he demonstrates its beguilements on every page." - Richard Lacayo, Time

  • "Even by his exacting standards his latest novel is extraordinary. His trademark sentences of sustained eloquence and delicacy, which have sometimes over-rationalised the evocation of emotion, strike a deeper resonance in Atonement." - Russell Celyn Jones, The Times

  • "My only regret is that because he uses rapid editing and time shifts, too many of the dilemmas and tensions that are established in the first half of the book are left unresolved. (…) Still, the first part of the book is magically readable and never has McEwan shown himself to be more in sympathy with the vulnerability of the human heart." - Jason Cowley, The Times

  • "McEwan continues to describe, with characteristic limpidity, the house and the dynamics of its inhabitants. His patience is doubly effective, for it generates not only an authentic environment in which the tragedy can eventually unfurl, but also an ever-burgeoning sense of menace. It would devastate the novel's effect to reveal what does in fact occur. (…) Probably the most impressive aspect to Atonement, however, is the precision with which it examines its own novelistic mechanisms." - Robert McFarland , Times Literary Supplement

  • "Whether it is indeed a masterpiece -- as upon first reading I am inclined to think it is -- can be determined only as time permits it to take its place in the vast body of English literature. Certainly it is the finest book yet by a writer of prodigious skills and, at this point in his career, equally prodigious accomplishment." - Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

  • "Ian McEwan hat einen Roman über die Literatur geschrieben, der gleichzeitig ein Roman über den Menschen ist. Gleichzeitig -- darin liegt die Kunst. Kein Buch, in dem neben diversen Figuren auch einige literaturtheoretische Überlegungen vorkommen, sondern ein Buch, das nach der Moral des Schreibens fragt und Schreiben, also Imaginieren, als besonders heikle Form sittlichen Handelns betrachtet." - Evelyn Finger, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The first half of Atonement -- the long first part of the book -- is set in 1935, at the Tallis home in the English countryside. It begins with Briony Tallis, a bright but still very childish thirteen year-old, preparing a play, The Trials of Arabella. Briony seems a budding dramatist, enjoying this staging of events and putting words into people's mouths, but the events of just those days will change her from potential playwright to novelist, a very different kind of fabulist.
       A great deal goes on in the brief time covered in this first part of the book, but most of it is relatively mundane stuff. The highlight is meant to be the return of Briony's brother, Leon, from school; it is to impress him that Briony writes her play.
       McEwan slowly sets the stage and introduces the players -- also more dramatist than novelist at the beginning. The house is fairly full -- though, in the terrible heat, not exactly bustling with activity. There is another sibling: Briony's considerably older sister, Cecilia. The parents are weak presences: the mother, Emily, isn't a very strong woman and the father is almost entirely absent (away working in London).
       Other figures of note include Robbie Turner, the housekeeper's son who shows great promise and whose education has been paid for by the Tallises. He and Cecilia both attended Cambridge at the same time, and while they didn't associate much there they suddenly find themselves closer than expected back home.
       Then there are the cousins -- nine-year-old twin boys and the fifteen-year-old Lola. Their parents have split up and the children have just been sent here, where Briony immediately ropes them into participating in her play. Lola, adept at some manipulation, turns out to be a bit much for Briony to try to control -- but Briony seems to manage to twist most situations to her satisfaction.
       Then there's the wealthy industrialist, slick Paul Marshall, also staying over .....
       McEwan takes his time, allowing the story to unfold. There are ominous signs and small warnings all along. There are accidents -- a child wetting the bed, a chipped vase -- and then things seen and overheard and possibly misinterpreted (and possibly missed). There are more dramatic slips -- Robbie pens two letters and has Briony deliver the wrong one. It becomes ever clearer: something bad is bound to happen, something terrible, even.
       Briony is at the centre of most of it. The novel wanders farther afield, focussing on others, too, but Briony is the key. She alone might have been able to change the course of events. McEwan makes it clear: there were opportunities:

       She could have gone in to her mother then and snuggled close beside her and begun a résumé of the day. If she had she would not have committed her crime. So much would not have happened, nothing would have happened, and the smoothing hand of time would have made the eveing barely memorable
       But throughout there is also always a sense of inevitability to the story.
       Briony does do something very, very bad -- but the true crime (and there is one) is committed by another. It's one of the few weaknesses in the book (though in a book of such strength weakness too is relative, and it is not that much of a blemish): the evil-doer is too strongly depicted as such, the character's villainy too obvious, even the deed itself foreshadowed in almost every detail (there was no doubt what the crime would be, or who the victim). The suspense, however, is in Briony's crime -- to see what her betrayal will be, and how McEwan will manage it.
       It is a horrible betrayal, ruining two lives. It comes almost exactly halfway through the book -- a long buildup just for this, but at no point does McEwan disappoint along the way. The reader has been prepared for it, and it is still shocking and wrenching -- a neat, tragic climax smack in the centre of the novel.
       The first part of the novel ends with Briony's crime -- allowing for only a few bits of the consequences to unfold. What really happens in the hours and days and months and even years after isn't made immediately clear.
       The second part of the novel jumps ahead a few years, focussing on Robbie Turner, now soldiering in France -- in fact, fleeing from the oncoming Germans. It's a complete change of pace and scene -- and story. It might be a bit too much -- McEwan showing he can write war-scenes, while the reader constantly wants to know: but what of all the others. But McEwan sticks with Robbie, allowing only a few more details to come out that reveal what transpired in the intervening years, and ultimately that too works.
       The third part focusses on Briony, studying to become a nurse in wartime London -- the same job her estranged sister, Cecilia, has. Briony is also still writing, and at one point sends a manuscript to Cyril Connolly at Horizon -- receiving an encouraging rejection letter. McEwan presents the entire three-page letter, and from Connolly's comments it becomes clear that Briony submitted what amounts to a first draft of the first part of Atonement (reading slightly differently now in part because some of Connolly's suggestions have been incorporated into it) ......
       It dawns on readers: Briony's atonement is not her forsaking Cambridge to become a nurse, or trying to be forgiven by those she wronged, but rather it is the writing of this novel. This is confirmed, soon enough.
       The book closes with a short last section set in the present, in London, 1999 -- a final summing up. There appear to have been readers who were disappointed by what has been perceived as an unfair final authorial twist here. Briony even anticipates them:
I know there's always a certain kind of reader who will be compelled to ask, But what really happened ?
       "The answer is simple", McEwan has Briony write -- and it is. McEwan shows here, with a crystal clarity that few novelists have achieved in recent times: fiction triumphs.
       The author decides what "really happened". That's always the case. That is what fiction is. And here, for once, the author has presented his decision in a near-perfect manner -- in particular because he shows so well how this particular reality (or un-reality) came about (and leaves the inevitable lingering questions of what can be believed, of what is truth and what is wishful thinking and what pure invention). Questions remain -- but McEwan makes a convincing case for their needing to remain, and for readers needing to confront them. Trust us: neat endings, tied up with a bow, aren't nearly as satisfying as what McEwan has to offer.
       Fiction doesn't offer certainty, or absolute answers. It is nothing like factual, literal truth. But McEwan here shows why this fiction-truth is better, and what amazing power fiction has
       It hardly plays a major role until near the end, but Atonement is a convincing example of why authors write novels -- indeed, of how (and why) we all create our own realities (be they in book form, or merely mind-games that allow us to bear the enormity that is life itself). Both Briony-as-author and, much more significantly, McEwan-as-author make a very impressive case for the continued role and need for the novel.
       And Atonement is a also a very good novel even without these writerly concerns. The first part is exceptional, a large cast of characters and many events adeptly interwoven, all culminating in a terrible but understandable betrayal. The other parts, too, are very well done -- the horrors of war, the scenes of the wounded, and the lives of Briony, Cecilia, and Robbie.
       A marvelous read, highly recommended.

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Atonement: Reviews: Atonement - the film: Ian McEwan: Other books by Ian McEwan under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See the index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       British author Ian McEwan is the author of many fine novels. He won the Booker Prize for Amsterdam in 1998.

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© 2002-2021 the complete review

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