Rating : 4 Stars
2011 Man Booker Prize
Julian Barnes’ latest book is a slender one, a little over a 150 pages. Don’t let its size fool you; it has all the density of a black hole.
The narrator, Tony Webster, is edging slightly past the point that can still be truthfully called middle age. Still, he is at peace with that, more or less; because as he says in his defense, he’s a ‘peaceable’ man. He’s experienced friendship, love, loss, marriage, fatherhood, divorce, career, retirement – the whole kit and caboodle. Whatever uneasy thoughts he might have about death are eclipsed by a recurring fear of Alzheimer’s – that great erosion of the mind.
The problem of memory is one seared into our consciousness when a series of events force Tony to re-evaluate everything he thought he knew, about himself and his loved ones. As one exasperated ex-girlfriend tells him over and over again – ‘you don’t get it and you never will’. I would like to say there’s a twist at the end, but it would be more accurate to state that the story’s arc is as sinuous as memory can be, when it is at its most capricious and self-inventing.
“…what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”
Barnes style is lovely…and refreshing. Just as we accustom ourselves to his elegant, cerebral manner of expression, he jabs us into alertness with needle-sharp humor, and efficiently placed profanity. When we think we’ve got to know a character fairly well, we’re shocked that the same person had it in them to lash out viciously, albeit in hurt and rage, spilling words that splash like hot acid. Yet, why should we be surprised at all; the book vividly brings home the impossibility of knowing another, when we do not know ourselves. That makes it all the more gratifying when our narrator, defying his ex's opinion of his cognitive abilities, finally ‘gets it’.
Once Barnes received the Booker, which some felt was long overdue, there was the inevitable gossip about the book's merit. I came across two others that were also on the 2011 shortlist – ‘The Sisters Brothers’, which I really enjoyed; and, ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’ which I tossed aside in boredom after having got partway through the book (if imitation is indeed the highest form of flattery, Yann Martel must be quite flattered). Not every Booker winner of the past has had my unqualified enthusiasm, but this time, I would say that the honor given to Barnes was richly deserved.