Remarkable book about love in times of war. Maybe it is built a bit slowly, with lengthy and wordy descriptions. The style is very high, which, together with the fact that it’s in British English, means that it was a heavy load for my narrow vocabulary. But it is a very rewarding experience. It is incredible the way the author makes you hate a character in the beginning, and then he softens her up, until you start liking her (when she realizes her mistake and tries to make amend for it), until making her the protagonist and the speaker of the last words in the book, containing its ultimate truth.
Briony Tellis is a young girl who lives in an English wealthy family. Her father, Jack, is employed at the Ministry and mostly absent, in an intense relationship with his job (and a colleague); her mother, Emily, is victim to atrocious headaches and is detached from her family’s life, but in a different way than her husband, because she’s physically present. Cecilia, Briony’s older sister, has studied in Cambridge in a time (the action starts in the Thirties) where women weren’t considered much and weren’t even awarded formal degrees at the end of a successful academic career. Robert is the son of a housemaid who’s been taken in sympathy by Jack Tallis, who offers to pay for his studies, until the boy lands himself to Cambridge at the same epoch as Cecilia, even though the two share no time up there.
Briony’s waiting for her brother, Leon, to come for a visit to his parents’ manor, and is preparing a play. The day before Leon’s arrival, arrive in the house three young children, Lola, 15 years, and the twins (her brothers), Pierrot and Jackson, as a consequence of their mother Hermione (Emily Tallis’s sister) being in the process of divorcing from her husband. Briony decides to enroll them in her play, The Trials of Arabella, the story of a girl that leaves her house to follow her heart, finds misery with the man she fell for and is finally rescued by another man’s love.
Cecilia is in love with Robbie, without understanding it. She carries a vase to a fountain, and Robbie tries to help her, ending up in breaking a piece from the vase, which falls in the fountain. Cecilia undresses and goes in the fountain to rescue the piece, dresses back up, and goes back in the house with the vase. Briony sees the scene from a window and makes her own explanation of what it should be about.
Robbie acknowledges his love, and writes a letter, in two versions. One contains a polite description of his feelings, the other, written only to express the same feelings more immediately and without caring for the etiquette, to the point of containing some vulgarity. He closes the letter in an envelope, but takes the wrong one, and goes to the dinner organized for Leon’s visit. He hands the letter to Briony, whom he finds before the entrance to the house, asking her to deliver it to Cecilia. Briony opens the letter and is shocked by its crude content, but delivers it nonetheless. Cecilia reads it and understands her own feelings. Robbie and she manage to have intercourse in the library right before the dinner but are interrupted by Briony, attracted in the room by the noises.
After some dispute with the actors (Lola and the twins), Briony shuts down the play. Leon comes home with a friend, one Paul Marshall, merchant in chocolate. At the dinner, the twins ask permission to leave. Briony finds a letter on one of the chairs where was sitting one of them, declaring their intention to run away. Panic ensues. Search parties are organized to look for the children.
Briony looks alone. In the darkness, she recognizes a strange movement, later realizing that they were a man and a girl and that the girl was Lola, shocked, while the man runs away. Briony understands that Lola was being raped, and decides to recognize in the assailer’s silhouette Robbie’s. Back in the house, she formally accuses Robbie. This latter is back to the house with the refound twins, to discover that police is waiting for him to bring him to prison. Cecilia is furious with Briony and knows that she’s wrong, and promises Robbie to wait for him.
Part two. We find Robbie as part of the English army, retreating from France during the Nazi invasion. He’s cut a deal with the justice system, deciding to enroll in the army to reduce his sentence. He is said to reach England. Cecilia has become a nurse and works in hospitals caring for the war injured. Briony gives up the opportunity to go to Cambridge and enrolls as a nurse herself. She manages to write to Cecilia, who has cut every link with her family for what they’ve done to Robbie, saying that she understands what she’s done, and is ready to amend her own accusations. This should clear Robbie’s name. Cecilia tells Robbie about it.
Part three. Briony’s life as an apprentice nurse. She learns about Lola and Paul Marshall’s wedding and goes to the church where it is to be celebrated. It is made clear that back at the time of the incident, Lola was raped by Paul. After the ceremony, Briony goes to Cecilia’s home, and finds Robbie, too, and reiterates her intention of amending her accusations.
Last part. London, 1999. Briony is 77 and an acclaimed writer. She’s written the story of what she’s done, over the years, citing real names and circumstances. She’s never published it, since Paul has become a magnate also thanks to what he earned through the war, and is ready to sue for libel, as he’s done in the past against anyone who would dispute the origin of his wealth. She hints at the fact that she’s written several versions of her story, and that the first ones were more realistic and for this reason harsher, and that they didn’t make justice to the intense love that her sister and Robbie had shared. She also suggests that what really happened is that Robbie never survived the retreat from France and that Cecilia died the same year in a bomb attack over London by the Germans.