I’ve been meaning to read this for ages, because I heard a lot of hype about it back when it won the Booker in 2011, and then when the film came out this year, I thought there must be something in it to warrant a read, as there’s not many Booker prize winning books with plots good enough to make a decent film, being as they are so frequently style over substance (see mine and Simon’s Tea or Books? podcast on precisely this issue here). So, when my university was giving away a pile of these for free thanks to an upcoming talk by Julian Barnes, I thought now was my chance. I snapped up my free copy and proceeded to read, and found something quite different to what I expected. A wry, thoughtful, interesting voice unfolded on the page, and I found myself strangely absorbed by the tale of sixty something Tony Webster, and the memories of his unexceptionable and yet life-shaping school and university days. However, as the book progressed and it became clear that the promises of intrigue hinted at earlier on were not going to come to anything I would term remarkably realistic, satisfying or surprising, I became increasingly frustrated. As I finished the last page, I wanted to throw it across the room. Was that it? A google search proved that many others had felt the same way, and some, unsatisfied with the prosaicness of the most logical conclusion to the story, have woven all sorts of interpretations, from the events of the whole novel being a figment of the narrator’s imagination, to everything that happens being a lie and so serving as a metaphor for the fact that we all create the version of our lives we wish others – and ourselves – to believe – and so on. Either way, whether the ending is what it is or whether it is a meditation on the fallacy of all our lives, it was still a rubbish ending. Let me tell you why. Be warned: this has spoilers.
The book starts with Tony reminiscing about the friends he had at school, and one of them in particular, Adrian, who was ridiculously intelligent and far more mature than the rest of their group. Tony was fascinated by him, and a little possessive, too; though when the boys all went off to different universities, gradually they drifted apart and contact was reduced to occasional letters and a few reunions during the holidays. While at university, Tony dated a girl called Veronica for about a year; she was enigmatic, elusive, difficult to understand. Tony’s most vivid memory of her is a visit to her parents’ house for the weekend, where he was fascinated by her cryptic, beguiling mother, and unsettled by her boorish father. Not long afterwards, they broke up; a letter from Adrian came some months later, letting him know that he was now dating Veronica, and asking for his permission to do so. Tony says he wrote back to say that of course he did; there were no hard feelings. They didn’t meet again; Tony went to America after university on a gap year and on his return found out that Adrian had committed suicide. Ever the philosopher, he had simply decided that life was not worth living. Tony has been somewhat haunted by this ever since, and when he receives a letter from a lawyer some forty years later to tell him that Veronica’s mother has died and left him £500, along with a letter telling him that she owes him an apology, and Adrian’s diary. However, Veronica still has Adrian’s diary and doesn’t want to give it up. This starts Tony off on an obsessive desire to reconnect with Veronica and claim back the diary, though Veronica is intent on making life difficult for him, and as he begins to reconnect with his past, he realises that the version of his younger self he has believed for so long might not be quite as accurate as he would like to believe.
All this is quite intriguing, as the question of why Veronica’s mother had Adrian’s diary and what on earth any of this has to do with Tony is one that keeps the pages turning in quest of an answer. However, as the plot develops, Veronica’s behaviour becomes more and more maddeningly incomprehensible, and as the pieces begin to click into place, the disappointment starts to settle, slowly at first, and then thicker and faster as the absurdities pile ever higher. Veronica keeps telling Tony that he doesn’t get it, and he never will get it, but the problem is that she’s given him absolutely no information to enable him to get ‘it’, and when we finally get it too, at the end, which is that Veronica’s mother had an affair with Adrian and bore his child, which apparently is Tony’s fault because he wrote a nasty letter to Adrian (which he had, incidentally, forgotten all about writing until Veronica showed it to him) telling him to go and see Veronica’s mother in order to get the measure of Veronica, we don’t really understand why Veronica is so angry with Tony about it. Essentially, Veronica blames Tony for Adrian’s death and her own presumably unhappy life, because if he had never advised Adrian to visit her mother in the aforementioned nasty letter, the affair would never have happened. Because obviously he would never have met the mother of his long term girlfriend otherwise. So this is not only totally unconvincing as the premise for a plot, but also, from a rational basis, utterly nonsensical. I couldn’t believe that any normal person would hold themselves accountable for such a chain of events, and Barnes doesn’t convince us why we should. I completely understood his points about the unreliability of memory, of the consequences of our actions and so on, but to suggest that Tony was in any way responsible for decisions other people willingly made and would believe himself to be so is ridiculous, and choosing to base his philosophical ponderings on such a paper thin plot was rather a mistake, in my opinion.
So. Another Booker Prize winner, another feat of style over substance. This book purports to be far deeper than it really is, and the ideas it contains are far too heavy to be held by the flimsily constructed story and characters. It’s well written, of course, but the writing can’t atone for a cast of characters I couldn’t care less about and a plot that was ultimately absurd. I’d love to hear what other people thought. If I missed the point, please do tell me!