“This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn't turn out to be like Literature.”
I don't read a lot of contemporary fiction and just happened picked this one up on a whim at the library. This might be a short novel that can easily be read in one sitting (clocks in at 150 pages) but it is very well-written, full of powerful pithy observations about memory, adolescence, love, friendships, aging, remorse and death--in essence, Barnes is able to effectively tap into the many joyous and painful experiences that accompany one's life. Here is one of many quotes that bowled me over:
"For the most of us, the first experience if love, even if it doesn’t work out—perhaps especially when it doesn’t work out—promises that here is the thing that validates, that vindicates life. And though subsequent years might alter this view, until some of us give up on it altogether, when love first strikes, there’s nothing like it, is there? Agreed?”
Well said, Mr. Barnes. The novel is full of these wonderful insights, making it a delightful and worthwhile read but a winner of the Man Booker Prize? Nah. I wouldn't go that far. While Julian Barnes should be commended for his understated meditation on memory and engaging psychological character study, the story leaves much to be desired. Written in the first-person, the novel opens with the narrator reflecting on some fragmented memories that connect to his childhood relationship with Adrian Finn, an intelligent and precocious schoolmate whom he greatly admires. However, it soon becomes apparent that Tony is trying to reconstruct the past in order to make sense of the present but his memories are distorted with the passage of time. The novel takes on the form of a mystery in which the narrator is searching for answers but they are hidden within repressed memories so he must plunge deep into his murky consciousness in order to extract the truth. Barnes is keen to emphasizes the dichotomy between history and memory. Adrian Finn believes that history "is that certainty produced at that point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation" (59) whereas Tony has a more solipsistic view: "History is the lies of the victors or is it the self-delusions of the defeated?" (122). It is important to keep these two opposing viewpoints in mind since fact and fiction are constantly blurred. Tony cannot be trusted as a reliable narrator, his memories being altered by time and manipulated by own consciousness in order to repress the truth of having a painful past.
Unfortunately, Barnes isn't as clever as he might think he is and the story falls apart in the final few pages once the true revelations come to light. For me, the "twist" ending is ludicrous, one of those WTF kind of moments that ruins the entire novel. 'Tis is a shame because everything up to this point is surprisingly great. Thus, I will eschew from revealing too much about the plot for anyone interested in checking this one out. As a fan of brevity, Barnes is able to construct an adequate novel with great insight, sardonic wit and humor that is compelling enough for a quick read but not one that leaves an indelible impression.