Update: In response to some of the comments on this review, I have written a newer post that explains the ending.
I bought a signed copy at Highgate Bookshop, took it home and read it from cover to cover without stopping. That’s partly because it’s a short book (150 pages, with fairly large type and liberal use of white space) but also because it really drew me in and made me want to read more. The clever thing about the book is that much of it is quite abstract musing about time and history and memory, but there’s also a strong mystery at the core of it, a suicide of one of the main characters at a very young age. It’s a hard thing to understand, and makes you naturally want to find out more. Barnes then skilfully parcels out the information over the rest of the book, revealing just enough to keep you interested, before tying things up at the end.
Although it’s a short book, it felt to me like a whole novel, not a novella. It covers the whole lifespan of its narrator, Tony, from adolescence to old age, and never feels rushed. There are quite a few characters and all are fully drawn – even relatively minor ones like Tony’s girlfriend’s older brother feel quite real.
Barnes achieves this with a quite massive jump in the middle, skipping over the majority of Tony’s life in a few paragraphs and catapulting him from his early twenties into sudden old age. It reminded me of the “Time Passes” section of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and had a similar effect for me of highlighting how much of what we think is important is rendered utterly irrelevant by the passing of time. Forty years later, Tony has lost touch with his friends, married and divorced, had a career, a child, grandchildren. His younger self seems like a different person altogether – when he is presented with a spiteful letter he wrote after a breakup with his girlfriend, he is genuinely shaken: “My younger self had come back to shock my older self with what that self had been, or was, or was sometimes capable of being.”
Yet some things do remain the same across the decades. Tony’s need to understand his friend’s suicide is undimmed, and as soon as he is given some documents from the past that might explain things, he plunges straight back into the past again, even to the point of wanting to get back together with his old girlfriend Veronica. One of the documents is the friend’s diary, written in point form with highly philosophical language, like Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a book I failed to read or comprehend. I did recognise another quote from the book, though: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” The original explanation was that the friend killed himself because he had rationally thought through the nature of life and acted on the consequences. But the truth, we suspect, is more complex, more emotional, less intellectually pure, and the hints at a different conclusion are what keep us reading.
There’s so much in this short book – so much story, so much character, so many ideas. I could probably end up writing a review longer than the book itself if I explored every observation. Quicker and more efficient, I think, simply to recommend this book, and to keep it on my shelf and re-read frequently. I fully expect it to win the Booker, for which it has been shortlisted, although perhaps that’s unfair because I haven’t read the others on the list. Certainly if another book wins I’ll be certain to read it, because to better this one would be quite a feat.
By the way, for those of you who are interested, I can tell you that Julian Barnes’s signature is small, neat and entirely free of any kind of flourish. It looks as if he just wrote down his name in his normal handwriting. Maybe nobody cares, but I thought it was interesting!
For another review I wrote of a lesser-known Julian Barnes book, click here.