As soon as I heard about this book, I knew I had to read it. I’ve enjoyed the two Julian Barnes’ books I have read before (Arthur and George and England, England), and was eager to read another. This one was especially promising, since it won the Man Booker prize last year.
I must start by saying there are books that win you over gradually, through lovable (or hateable) characters, a gripping plot, or well-written prose. Then, there are books that you open and realize almost immediately they are breathtaking and beautiful and you fall head over heels in love. They are the literary equivalent of that beautiful boy in the 8th grade that you will always remember.
This was one of those books for me.
The book is quite short, but covers a long life in retrospect. Barnes’ begins with the story of his narrator, Tony Webster, as a teenager and covers time through university, first love, marriage, divorce. But the point of this novel is not the plot. It’s not even really a novel, more like a fictionalized memoir. The main point of the story, as I see it, is both the power of and the complete unreliability of our memories. It is told through the lens of a retired narrator, looking back at a life he now has to re-imagine as he begins to learn some truths. It is part mystery, part memoir, part intellectual examining of the meanings of our lives. It is, at times, overly intellectual for some people. Or so I imagine. It is not a novel you read for the plot. It is not a novel you read if you normally read novels for action or thrills. It is introspective and at times a bit slow. But it is beautifully written, elegant, and depressingly, harshly real.
The ending was disappointing, but no other ending would have fit it. The point of the novel is rather post-modernist, if I may risk sounding pretentious. Almost with every major recollection of his life, Tony tells us that his memory has been most certainly clouded and tainted by time, by his own idea of what happened rather than the reality of it. Barnes’ makes a clear point about story-telling in this way, and I find that as I get older I quite agree. So a happy ending, or even a true ending with all the pieces tied down nicely, wouldn’t have fit. It wouldn’t have agreed with the point he is making. But the reader in me wishes some middle ground may have been found.
But that’s part of the point as well. Satisfaction we feel with our ideas of the world is…an illusion. Our ideas are true to us, perhaps, but they are not True with a capital t.
But, god it’s a beautiful book.