Atonement – Ian McEwan – Book Talk #1

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“I like to think that it isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them at the end.” – Ian McEwan, Atonement

I’m sure many of you are familiar with Ian McEwan’s novel, Atonement. Perhaps you’re like I was, and you’ve either heard very good things or not so good things about it. Maybe you’ve seen the popular movie adaptation. Today I will share five different perspectives on this novel. But before that, let’s cover the basics.

I was drawn to this novel because of its protagonist, a young girl named Briony Tallis who dreams of becoming a writer. This was something that I could connect to, and maybe you can too. The fact that it is a historical fiction novel also sweetened the deal for me, though if you are not too keen on the genre, this one may not be for you.

Atonement dives deep into Briony’s life and her connection to her family. As a child, she witnessed the changing relationship between her older sister Cecilia, and Robbie Turner – a close family friend. Briony eventually commits an unforgivable act, betraying both her sister and Robbie in the process. For the rest of the novel, Briony must come to terms with the mistake she has made and suffer the consequences.

This novel is a classic example of the scandalous family drama, complete with romance, crime, and treachery. Because of its 1930s-1940s setting, the novel also delves into the realities of World War II, and the effects it has on Briony and her family. What’s more, it provides a striking, in-depth look at one girl’s journey from childhood to adulthood. Ian McEwan writes skillfully about the trials and tribulations of the human mind. But, I guess I should move on to the “howevers”.

Atonement is written largely through the eyes of our beloved protagonist Briony, whom we meet at age thirteen. It did take me a while to get into this novel (which you hear quite often, I know) because of its sugary prose and drawn out narrative. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of a bit of floral language from time to time, but the beginning of this book actually made me hate Briony, just a little. To me, it was worth it to get past that and finish the book. As you’ll see soon, however (see, there’s the word!), not all of my friends agreed with that. It was hard to follow, and frankly a bit ridiculous at times, but the middle and end of the novel made up for that. My friends and I found ourselves having so much to talk about, from the complex themes and symbols to the development of our favourite characters, there was never a dull moment. Atonement provides a unique perspective on class differences in wartime England, a look at the life of a soldier in love, and of two sisters who struggle to look past each others’ faults. Atonement will surprise you, spark your curiosity, and it might make you a little bit bored (hey, I’m being honest! That’s what I’m here for, right?).

And with that, let’s go on to the discussion. Of course, if you haven’t read the novel and would like to, I will warn you that there are spoilers galore below. If you have read the novel, or know you aren’t interested or are interested but you’re one of those people that don’t mind spoilers (what’s wrong with you??), read on.


Our characters in today’s play are: myself (Mackenzie), Michael, Sarah, Emily, and Mira. Everything written here is transcribed from a recording of the discussion. Warning: It’s a bit ridiculous, we tend to get off-topic.

We began by having a discussion about how much of the story was actually real. There were a few conflicting opinions on this. As you know if you’ve read the novel, the entire book is written by our main character, Briony Tallis. This led us to the question…

Michael: Was Briony an unreliable narrator?

Sarah: Yes, she could have said anything and we wouldn’t know whether it was true or not. You can’t really tell whether Briony told the truth or not. She’s the only one whose perspective we see.

Mira: It has to have some kind of conclusion, it can’t just be that she made it all up.

Emily: But that’s something that I think makes it really good, the fact that you don’t know if it’s real or not.

Mackenzie: That was something we were talking about throughout the whole novel, we kept wondering whose point of view we were in, but it turned out to be Briony’s all along, which was a nice surprise.

Michael: What did you think about Lola’s ending?

Emily: I looked into this quote that said: “This, as they used to say, was the side on which her bread was buttered.” So Lola thought that it was in her best interest to stay with Paul Marshall. Do you think he still abuses her?

Mira: [quoting Mean Girls] “Is your muffin buttered? Would you like us to assign someone to butter your muffin?”

Sarah: Maybe that’s why Briony made a point of describing that she wears a lot of makeup when she’s older, maybe she’s trying to hide something.

Mackenzie: Do you think she knows [that Paul Marshall was the one who raped her as a child]?

Everyone: Of course she knows!!

Mackenzie: I don’t know, maybe she doesn’t have a clue. Maybe she’s repressed it. People can change their own memories; they start thinking of something one way and they believe that that’s what happened.

Mira: I can see that. She probably convinced herself that it was Robbie.

Sarah: I definitely think she knows, but she’s too scared to say anything. She’s doing it to protect herself.

Emily: I was thinking about how this relates to Life of Pi, actually. He [Pi] compares his family members to animals, and he does that as a coping mechanism to deal with the fact that he killed some of them.

Mackenzie: Yes! I like that. At the end of Life of Pi there’s the reveal [that they weren’t really animals], and in Atonement, there’s also a reveal [that Briony wrote the whole book].

Mira: I’m sorry, what? He killed his family?

Emily: I’m not sure, I think it was actually the cook or someone that killed his mom, and then he acted out to get revenge.

Mira: Oh ok, I mean that’s perfectly justifiable, I thought he killed his mom.

Emily: Yeah, well, people kill their moms, ok?

Everyone: -laughs

Mackenzie: That’s definitely going in the blog post.

Michael: What did you think of Leon’s ending?

Emily: Yeah, can we talk about how he had like four marriages?

Sarah: Did he go to war too?

Everyone: (that high pitched sound that people make when they don’t know the answer to something)

Emily: I liked it, I thought it was a nice ending for him. She was talking about how her family was so surprised that he was so dedicated to his kids.

Sarah: Because he had an absentee father! So maybe he wanted to make up for that.

Emily: And mother, pretty much. Neither of them was really involved with their kids from what we saw.

Michael: (seemingly out of nowhere, but we were all very intrigued) You know that when you recall a memory, you’re just remembering the last time you remembered it, not the memory itself.

Mackenzie: That’s one of the themes I picked up on, can you really trust your memory?

(Now we shift into talking about themes and symbols. One of the symbols we kept trying to decipher was water, and water imagery).

Emily: I looked into the water thing, guys, get ready. It symbolizes… atonement, washing yourself of your grief, cleansing your sins.

Mackenzie: Oh my god! How did I not think of that! (Earlier in that week, I thought that the water could symbolize the sort of middle ground that Briony always found herself in).

Emily: It can also mean destruction, like how water washes things away. And also, the vase symbolizes Robbie and Cecilia’s love, and how they were in love that whole time [before the story began], and on the first day that they came together, it broke apart. That’s why a piece of the vase broke!

Everyone: Ohhhhh!

Emily: And then in 1940, when Betty dropped the vase and it shattered, that’s when-

Mackenzie: They died!

Emily: Exactly.

Michael: Wow!!

Emily: And there was one line that I loved at the end, it was “like policemen in a search team, we go on hands and knees and crawl our way towards the truth,” and that’s what I think Briony was trying to do throughout the whole novel.

Sarah: So the reason she wrote this book is to atone for everything that happened in her life, the mistakes she made.

Mackenzie: I loved that scene near the end at the apartment, when they were all going head to head. It was really intense.

Emily: But then Robbie just showed up, and it was kind of anti-climactic.

Sarah: I agree, Briony was relieved that he was alive, which was pretty ironic because he actually was dead.

Mackenzie: Hold on, what?! He was dead? That scene never happened?

Sarah: Yes.

Mackenzie: She made that up?!

Sarah: Yeah.

Emily: That’s the first thing she said was that “If I had courage, I would have gone and done this.”

Mackenzie: No way!! (Way to be observant there, mate)

Emily: She lied about that, and like, the whole thing she wrote.

Mackenzie: I’m sorry, the whole book?

Emily: Yeah!

Mackenzie: (the world’s loudest laughter) Oh my god!

Sarah: That’s what we’ve been talking about!

Mackenzie: Well I knew it was her book, and her story, but I assumed there was some truth to it.

Sarah: It could all be fiction!

Emily: It did happen, but we don’t know how much of it was true.

Mackenzie: This could be way too meta for me.

Sarah: So that whole apartment scene is the atonement she wished she could have had, but never got.

Mackenzie: The book pretty much ends after Lola and Paul Marshall’s wedding then, when Briony returns to the hospital but the hospital blows up or something?

Emily: Right, the hospital had an explosion.

Mackenzie: What if she died! What if this is her ghost?

Sarah: That’s too meta for me.

Emily: And the book ends with this quote, “I like to think that it isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers like and to unite them at the end.” So some people may read this book and ask “How did it really end?” Well, it ended like this, and her lovers got to be together.

Sarah: Well that’s nice, but that’s how her book ended, not how real life ended.

Emily: I love this part: “No one will care what events and which individuals were misrepresented to make a novel.”

Mackenzie: It’s like we can’t even trust ourselves.

Sarah: And that’s why I think the crime with Robbie never even happened! Maybe it’s something else that happened.

Mira: But the whole book revolved around that, and it was all about Briony trying to make up for her mistakes.

Sarah: But you don’t know if it was really that or if it was something else. Something worse.

(Little interlude here, Sarah hates Briony’s character.)

Sarah: I hated that part where she was talking to the other nurse about “the horrors she’s seen” in the hospital. It’s not even close to an actual war! Briony’s always trying to play the victim!

Mackenzie: But you never see anyone happy. The only thing you ever see [when you’re a nurse] is people who are sick and dying, while in the war you still might see people who are holding onto their happiness.

Michael: How did you see Briony’s character change?

Mackenzie: Well one of the big themes of the novel is growing up, and we get to see the process of growing up with Briony. I definitely think her voice changed, I noticed a huge difference between her child self and her teenage self. It was more flowery and open language at first and then she became more sophisticated but harder to read.

Emily: When she was in the hospital she was just trying to keep busy and she was always washing her hands, trying to get rid of the guilt.

Mackenzie: Lady Macbeth!

Michael: What do you think was in the notebook from the beginning? She talked about how she had this one locked notebook full of her secrets.

Everyone: (stumped by that question)

Mackenzie: Maybe there was nothing in it, maybe she just kept it so she could feel like she had secrets.

Sarah: Do you think this [the novel] was written in the locked notebook?

Everyone: -laughs

Emily: Also what I’m confused about is the Trials of Arabella.

Sarah: Why was it relevant?

Emily: I looked it up and found that the Trials of Arabella is a mirror for the book, Atonement.

(The conversation continues while I look up this analogy, the topic is pretty much focused on how sad Sarah and Mira were that one of the twins died).

Emily: But I don’t trust it now. What if Briony misrepresented everyone in her book?

Sarah: Jackson and Pierrot were the only characters I liked in this book.

Mackenzie: Yeah, who was your favourite character?

Sarah: Jackson and Pierrot.

Michael: I think mine is Cecilia. She’s mysterious, she has this hidden part of herself, she has a different feeling to her.

Mira: …Not Briony. I like Cecilia as well. I was going to say Robbie, but, no, I didn’t really like his part- it was kind of boring to me. I didn’t like how fast it was going. It felt out of place. I feel kind of bad for him [Robbie] though, and that whole war part developed his character. Cecilia is good, she’s pretty cool.

(Emily having a nervous breakdown in her seat)

Mira: What?

Emily: I just, don’t even know what to think anymore, because you don’t know any of these characters! It would be like me writing a book about Sarah, and I hardly know anything about her. You would just know my perspective of her!

Sarah: If you want to write a book about me, it’ll be a lot worse than this one.

Emily: The only character we can really talk about is Briony! Because she’s the only one!

Mackenzie: I was going to say that she’s my favourite character because, without her, this wouldn’t exist.

(I told you about how Sarah hates Briony; Emily will defend her anytime).

Emily: But guys, she was so young and she made one mistake that haunted her for the rest of her life and she couldn’t even be forgiven for it!

Sarah: Yeah, but how long can you use that excuse for?

Mira: You’re Briony-biased, ok?!

Mackenzie: Brib-ased.

Mira: Briased.

Sarah: But she had so much time to make up for it and she didn’t!

Emily: Don’t you feel bad for her?

Sarah and Mira: No!

Mackenzie: What would you do? If you were in a similar situation?

Sarah: I would tell the police! Right away.

Mackenzie: Ok, think of yourself at age thirteen. I knew you at age thirteen and it was rough. What would you have done? You saw your cousin, and some guy that owns a chocolate factory attacked her. And then your sister, your hypothetical sister, you see a letter from some dude addressed to her saying that he wants to kiss her… What would you do?

Sarah: I would hold no grudges, I would tell them what I saw! That it was Paul Marshall.

Mira: Right, because Briony had no affiliation with Paul Marshall, no reason to protect him. She just wanted to spite Robbie.

Mackenzie: It was a rash decision.

Emily: But at the same time, she didn’t actually see that it was Paul Marshall. She just saw it was some guy and she thought she’d pin it on the guy she happened to have a grudge against.

Mackenzie: Briony, at age 77, sees the play that she wrote as a child, and she sees the parallels between it and the novel that she’s written. I think she realizes that she hasn’t come very far from where she began. And that’s true for everyone. We can push past our boundaries and grow from where we came, but we can’t forget where we started.


Thank you for reading my very first Book Talk! I hope you enjoyed it; we all had a lot of fun discussing this together. As always, happy reading!

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