McEwan's Atonement begins on a hot day at an English country manor,
the house of the Tallis family. Jack Tallis, the father, is not at home, as is
the normal case. Emily Tallis, the mother, is in bed with a migraine
headache. The children, therefore, are left fairly on their own. Briony, the
thirteen-year-old fledgling writer, has created a play that she is rehearsing
with her cousins, Lola, Jackson, and Pierrot, who have come to stay with
them while their parents go through a divorce. This is a special day. Leon,
the oldest child of the Tallis family, is coming home from London for a visit
and Briony's play is for him.
Meanwhile, Cecilia Tallis, who is twenty-three and home from college for
the summer, is emotionally irritated. Her edginess has something to do
with Robbie Turner, the son of the Tallis's housemaid. Robbie has grown
up with the Tallis children and has always been a close friend with Cecilia.
But in the past few years, Cecilia and Robbie have become uncomfortable
in one another's company. There is a sexual tension between them,
though they are both afraid to admit it.
Once Leon arrives with his friend Paul Marshall, the group sits down to
dinner. Just prior to dinner, Robbie had given a note to Briony, asking her
to present it to Cecilia. The letter is Robbie's way of broaching the subject
of his recently discovered love for Cecilia. Briony cannot resist reading the
note before giving it to her sister. The sexual nature of the note pushes
Briony into a panic. She believes that her sister is in danger. When she
catches Cecilia and Robbie in a state of heavy passion, Briony thinks
Robbie is hurting Cecilia and believes Robbie is a serious threat to the
When the twins go missing after dinner and everyone goes out into the
night to search for them, someone rapes sixteen-year-old cousin Lola.
Briony is the first to come upon Lola and sees a shadowy figure
disappearing. Lola sounds terribly upset and acts as if she does not know