was one of those children possessed by a desire to have the world just
so. Whereas her big sister's room was a stew of unclosed books, unfolded
clothes, unmade bed, unemptied ashtrays, Briony's was a shrine to her
controlling demon: the model farm spread across a deep window ledge consisted
of the usual animals, but all facing one way--towards their owner--as
if about to break into song, and even the farmyard hens were neatly corralled.
In fact, Briony's was the only tidy upstairs room in the house. Her straight-backed
dolls in their many-roomed mansion appeared to be under strict instructions
not to touch the walls; the various thumb-sized figures to be found standing
about her dressing table--cowboys, deep-sea divers, humanoid mice--suggested
by their even ranks and spacing a citizen's army awaiting orders.
A taste for the miniature was one aspect of an orderly spirit. Another
was a passion for secrets: in a prized varnished cabinet, a secret drawer
was opened by pushing against the grain of a cleverly turned dovetail
joint, and here she kept a diary locked by a clasp, and a notebook written
in a code of her own invention. In a toy safe opened by six secret numbers
she stored letters and postcards. An old tin petty cash box was hidden
under a removable floorboard beneath her bed. In the box were treasures
that dated back four years, to her ninth birthday when she began collecting:
a mutant double acorn, fool's gold, a rain-making spell bought at a funfair,
a squirrel's skull as light as a leaf.
But hidden drawers, lockable diaries and cryptographic systems could not
conceal from Briony the simple truth: she had no secrets. Her wish for
a harmonious, organised world denied her the reckless possibilities of
wrongdoing. Mayhem and destruction were too chaotic for her tastes, and
she did not have it in her to be cruel. Her effective status as an only
child, as well as the relative isolation of the Tallis house, kept her,
at least during the long summer holidays, from girlish intrigues with
friends. Nothing in her life was sufficiently interesting or shameful
to merit hiding; no one knew about the squirrel's skull beneath her bed,
but no one wanted to know. None of this was particularly an affliction;
or rather, it appeared so only in retrospect, once a solution had been
At the age of eleven she wrote her first story--a foolish affair, imitative
of half a dozen folk tales and lacking, she realised later, that vital
knowingness about the ways of the world which compels a reader's respect.
But this first clumsy attempt showed her that the imagination itself was
a source of secrets: once she had begun a story, no one could be told.
Pretending in words was too tentative, too vulnerable, too embarrassing
to let anyone know. Even writing out the she saids, the and thens, made
her wince, and she felt foolish, appearing to know about the emotions
of an imaginary being. Self-exposure was inevitable the moment she described
a character's weakness; the reader was bound to speculate that she was
describing herself. What other authority could she have? Only when a story
was finished, all fates resolved and the whole matter sealed off at both
ends so it resembled, at least in this one respect, every other finished
story in the world, could she feel immune, and ready to punch holes in
the margins, bind the chapters with pieces of string, paint or draw the
cover, and take the finished work to show to her mother, or her father,
when he was home.
Her efforts received encouragement. In fact, they were welcomed as the
Tallises began to understand that the baby of the family possessed a strange
mind and a facility with words. The long afternoons she spent browsing
through dictionary and thesaurus made for constructions that were inept,
but hauntingly so: the coins a villain concealed in his pocket were 'esoteric',
a hoodlum caught stealing a car wept in 'shameless auto-exculpation',
the heroine on her thoroughbred stallion made a 'cursory' journey through
the night, the king's furrowed brow was the 'hieroglyph' of his displeasure.
Briony was encouraged to read her stories aloud in the library and it
surprised her parents and older sister to hear their quiet girl perform
so boldly, making big gestures with her free arm, arching her eyebrows
as she did the voices, and looking up from the page for seconds at a time
as she read in order to gaze into one face after the other, unapologetically
demanding her family's total attention as she cast her narrative spell.
Even without their attention and praise and obvious pleasure, Briony could
not have been held back from her writing. In any case, she was discovering,
as had many writers before her, that not all recognition is helpful. Cecilia's
enthusiasm, for example, seemed a little overstated, tainted with condescension
perhaps, and intrusive too; her big sister wanted each bound story catalogued
and placed on the library shelves, between Rabindranath Tagore and Quintus
Tertullian. If this was supposed to be a joke, Briony ignored it. She
was on course now, and had found satisfaction on other levels; writing
stories not only involved secrecy, it also gave her all the pleasures
of miniaturisation. A world could be made in five pages, and one that
was more pleasing than a model farm. The childhood of a spoiled prince
could be framed within half a page, a moonlit dash through sleepy villages
was one rhythmically emphatic sentence, falling in love could be achieved
in a single word--a glance. The pages of a recently finished story seemed
to vibrate in her hand with all the life they contained. Her passion for
tidiness was also satisfied, for an unruly world could be made just so.
A crisis in a heroine's life could be made to coincide with hailstones,
gales and thunder, whereas nuptials were generally blessed with good light
and soft breezes. A love of order also shaped the principles of justice,
with death and marriage the main engines of housekeeping, the former being
set aside exclusively for the morally dubious, the latter a reward withheld
until the final page.
The play she had written for Leon's homecoming was her first excursion
into drama, and she had found the transition quite effortless. It was
a relief not to be writing out the she saids, or describing the weather
or the onset of spring or her heroine's face--beauty, she had discovered,
occupied a narrow band. Ugliness, on the other hand, had infinite variation.
A universe reduced to what was said in it was tidiness indeed, almost
to the point of nullity, and to compensate, every utterance was delivered
at the extremity of some feeling or other, in the service of which the
exclamation mark was indispensable. The Trials of Arabella may have been
a melodrama, but its author had yet to hear the term. The piece was intended
to inspire not laughter, but terror, relief and instruction, in that order,
and the innocent intensity with which Briony set about the project--the
posters, tickets, sales booth--made her particularly vulnerable to failure.
She could easily have welcomed Leon with another of her stories, but it
was the news that her cousins from the north were coming to stay that
had prompted this leap into a new form.
That Lola, who was fifteen, and the nine-year-old twins, Jackson and Pierrot,
were refugees from a bitter domestic civil war should have mattered more
to Briony. She had heard her mother criticise the impulsive behaviour
of her younger sister Hermione, and lament the situation of the three
children, and denounce her meek, evasive brother-in-law Cecil who had
fled to the safety of All Souls' College, Oxford. Briony had heard her
parents and sister analyse the latest twists and outrages, charges and
counter charges, and she knew the visit was an open-ended one, and might
even extend into term time. She had heard it said that the house could
easily absorb three children, and that the Quinceys could stay as long
as they liked, provided the parents, if they ever visited simultaneously,
kept their quarrels away from the Tallis household. Two rooms near Briony's
had been dusted down, new curtains had been hung and furniture carried
in from other rooms. Normally, she would have been involved in these preparations,
but they happened to coincide with her two-day writing bout and the beginnings
of the front-of-house construction. She vaguely knew that divorce was
an affliction, but she did not regard it as a proper subject, and gave
it no thought. It was a mundane unravelling that could not be reversed,
and therefore offered no opportunities to the storyteller: it belonged
in the realm of disorder. Marriage was the thing, or rather, a wedding
was, with its formal neatness of virtue rewarded, the thrill of its pageantry
and banqueting, and dizzy promise of lifelong union. A good wedding was
an unacknowledged representation of the as yet unthinkable--sexual bliss.
In the aisles of country churches and grand city cathedrals, witnessed
by a whole society of approving family and friends, her heroines and heroes
reached their innocent climaxes and needed to go no further.
If divorce had presented itself as the dastardly antithesis of all this,
it could easily have been cast onto the other pan of the scales, along
with betrayal, illness, thieving, assault and mendacity. Instead it showed
an unglamorous face of dull complexity and incessant wrangling. Like re-armament
and the Abyssinia Question and gardening, it was simply not a subject,
and when, after a long Saturday morning wait, Briony heard at last the
sound of wheels on the gravel below her bedroom window, and snatched up
her pages and ran down the stairs, across the hallway and out into the
blinding light of midday, it was not insensitivity so much as a highly
focused artistic ambition that caused her to shout to the dazed young
visitors huddled together by the trap with their luggage, 'I've got your
parts, all written out. First performance tomorrow! Rehearsals start in
Immediately, her mother and sister were there to interpose a blander timetable.
The visitors--all three were ginger-haired and freckled--were shown their
rooms, their cases were carried up by Hardman's son Danny, there was orange
juice in the kitchen, a tour of the house, a swim in the pool and lunch
in the south garden, under the shade of the vines. All the while, Emily
and Cecilia Tallis maintained a patter that surely robbed the guests of
the ease it was supposed to confer. Briony knew that if she had travelled
two hundred miles to a strange house, bright questions and jokey asides,
and being told in a hundred different ways that she was free to choose,
would have oppressed her. It was not generally realised that what children
mostly wanted was to be left alone. However, the Quinceys worked hard
at pretending to be amused or liberated, and this bode well for The Trials
of Arabella: this trio clearly had the knack of being what they were not,
even though they barely resembled the characters they were to play. Before
lunch Briony slipped away to the empty rehearsal room--the nursery--and
walked up and down on the painted floorboards, considering her casting
On the face of it, Arabella, whose hair was as dark as Briony's, was unlikely
to be descended from freckled parents, or elope with a foreign freckled
count, rent a garret room from a freckled innkeeper, lose her heart to
a freckled prince and be married by a freckled vicar before a freckled
congregation. But all this was to be so. Her cousins' colouring was too
vivid--virtually fluorescent!--to be concealed. The best that could be
said was that Arabella's lack of freckles was the sign--the hieroglyph,
Briony might have written--of her distinction. Her purity of spirit would
never be in doubt, though she moved through a blemished world. There was
a further problem with the twins, who could not be told apart by a stranger.
Was it right that the wicked count should so completely resemble the handsome
prince, or that both should resemble Arabella's father and the vicar?
What if Lola were cast as the prince? Jackson and Pierrot seemed typical
eager little boys who would probably do as they were told. But would their
sister play a man? She had green eyes and sharp bones in her face, and
hollow cheeks, and there was something brittle in her reticence that suggested
strong will and a temper easily lost. Merely floating the possibility
of the role to Lola might provoke a crisis, and could Briony really hold
hands with her before the altar, while Jackson intoned from the Book of
Excerpted from Atonement by Ian McEwanCopyright 2002
by Ian McEwan. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of
Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be
reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
the hottest day of the summer of 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis
sees her older sister Cecilia strip off her clothes and plunge into the
fountain in the garden of their country house. Watching Cecilia is their
housekeepers son Robbie Turner, a childhood friend who, along with
Brionys sister, has recently graduated from Cambridge.
the end of that day the lives of all three will have been changed forever.
Robbie and Cecilia will have crossed a boundary they had never before
dared to approach and will have become victims of the younger girls
scheming imagination. And Briony will have committed a dreadful crime,
the guilt for which will color her entire life.
each of his novels Ian McEwan has brilliantly drawn his reader into the
intimate lives and situations of his characters. But never before has
he worked with so large a canvas: In Atonement he takes the reader from
a manor house in England in 1935 to the retreat from Dunkirk in 1941;
from the Londons World War II military hospitals to a reunion of
the Tallis clan in 1999.
is Ian McEwans finest achievement. Brilliant and utterly enthralling
in its depiction of childhood, love and war, England and class, the novel
is at its center a profoundand profoundly movingexploration
of shame and forgiveness and the difficulty of absolution.
was born in 1948 in Aldershot, England and spent his childhood in Singapore
and North Africa where his father - a soldier - was posted. He studied
at the University of Sussex, where he received a BA degree in English
Literature in 1970. While completing his MA degree in English Literature
at the University of East Anglia, he took a creative writing course taught
by the novelists Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson.
writing short stories in the early 1970s for inclusion in literary journals
such as American Review and Transatlantic Review. The eight
stories making up his first book, First Love,Last Rites, published
in 1975, won a Somerset Maugham Award in the following year. In 1978 after
the publication of another book of short stories, In Between the Sheets,
McEwan published his first novel, The Cement Garden.
he has written several plays, novels, motion picture screenplays and scripts
for television, one of which, Solid Geometry, was notorious for
having been banned by the BBC in 1979 at an advanced stage of production.
Another of his novels, The Child in Time, won the Whitbread Prize
for Fiction in 1987. Amsterdam
won the 1998 Booker Prize.
won the WH Smith 2002 Literary Awards and has been selected as a finalist
for the 2002 National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award. It also shortlisted
for both the 2001 Booker Prize and 2001 Whitbread Book Award.
in London where he is currently busy writing.