I was surprised. After all, McEwan had done extensive research at the Imperial War Museum and was even accused of plagiarism due to the similarities in Atonement to No Time for Romance, a novel by Lucilla Andrews who had been a nurse at St Thomas' Hospital during the war.
My mother was unrepentant. 'I can see he's done his research,' she said. 'And I'm sure each of those incidents did happen. But it's unbelievable that they'd all happen to one particular nurse.' In other words, real incidents, but an unrealistic situation.
That's one of the tricks of narrative writing. Real life, but exaggerated. (I'm using the term narrative writing because it's true of non-fiction just as much as fiction.) In real life, when drama comes, we try to go back to normal as soon as possible. In narrative writing, characters rush headlong from one crisis to another. In real life, we get home from work and settle down with a nice cup of tea for an evening's viewing in front of the TV. If a character starts their evening in the same way the author will either interrupt it with a crucial phone call or that's where the scene will end.
Real life, but without any of the boring bits. After all, we can do boring bits at home every day of our own lives. We don't want to read about them, whether in fiction or narrative non-fiction. So, McEwan was right to load Briony's life at the hospital with as much drama as he could find in the archives. It may not have been real, but it was realistic - and more to the point, it wasn't boring.