The setting is England in the summer of 1935, and 13-year-old Briony Tallis is writing a play about a girl whose reckless love for a wicked count is punished with a case of cholera.
When Briony catches her older sister Cecilia and the caretaker's son Robbie in a carnal moment, her imagination goes berserk. Later that night, when her cousin is apparently raped, Briony's tenuous grasp of reality leads to a crime that destroys Cecilia and Robbie and plunges Briony into a lifelong quest for penance.
This stunning novel trolls the recesses of human suffering and forgiveness, following Briony until she is 77. McEwan doesn't draw his characters; he etches them, indelibly. (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $26)