Then the book skips five years to when Robbie is allowed to join the army and fight in World War II rather than serve the rest of his sentence. It shows him making his way through France, intent on seeing Cecelia again. He has a piece of shrapnel in his stomach, but he ignores the pain and keeps on going. This was a really interesting part, but in the end it was pointless, as you will see.
The third part of the book shows Briony, now eighteen, as a nurse-in-training as she works at a hospital with wounded soldiers. She sees all this death and destruction and realizes that she was foolish girl skewing her perception of reality when she accused Rob so long ago. She is also skewered with guilt when she learns that her cousin is marrying the man who really attacked her. Briony, wanting to help her cousin and her sister, who has lost her love to te war, determines to tell the truth. She goes to her sister, Cecilia’s, apartment, and apologizes for her error so many years ago. Robbie has just made it back from France and is staying with Cecilia. He refuses to forgive Briony for sending him to prison but tells her that if she puts in writing what really happened, he might not hate her anymore. So Briony says that she is going to write a story to set the record straight. At this point I’m almost okay with the book because Robbie and Cecilia got back together, Briony seems to have turned into a decent person, and the writing is much faster paced.
Then we skip forward to the year 1999. This is where everything starts to come to pieces. The section is in first person, from the viewpoint of seventy-seven-year-old Briony. Briony explains that this whole book is her account of what happened and her attempt to tel everybody the truth, but unfortunately the book can’t be published until after her cousin and her husband (the true perpetrator) die, because he is a wealthy person who donates lots of money to charities and it wouldn’t do to defame his good name. Then Briony mentions that she rewrote the ending of her book and that in “real life” Robbie died from his shrapnel wound before he gets to see Cecilia, and Cecilia died before the war ends.
So not only is the whole book a meta book within a book, it’s fictionalized fiction. I generally don’t like books that know that they’re books. But I guess I would have been okay with it if it just ended with Briony stating that this was her account of what happened. Instead she admits that she made up the end. The whole book is fiction! Briony doesn’t really exist! And so Ian McEwan can make the book end however he wants! But instead he makes it end one way and then lets the reader know that it didn’t “really” end that way! What a load of rubbish! I don’t read books so that they can tell me that they’re made up. I already know that. I read book so that I can get immersed in the story and enjoy it. You can’t get immersed in a long, winding narrative in the first half of the story and then finally learn that a fictional character wrote the whole book and made up parts. It’s just not cool. Some people may like this meta self-consciousness, but it’s not what I bargained for when I picked up Atonement.