This book is about Tony Webster and his friends who get a privileged academic education in 50’s London. However, they get their real education from a series of devastating events. The truth about these is slowly revealed over the course of time. Fiction writing often takes this tack, however this is no mere narrative trickery. Instead, this is a deeply and profoundly human novel that shows how people’s delusions and self-deceptions are most often the key to someone else’s miserable existence.
The start of the book trails Webster’s teenage years. Many novels centring on teenage boys fail to expose the painful vulnerability that’s inherent in the adolescent condition. Instead many popular characterisations of young men, show them as bolshy, precocious, stubborn and strident in their dealings with other people. It’s a rare novel that goes beyond that, and into soft places in an appealing way, so that the reader – male or female cannot fail to sympathise. To say that Barnes knows about characterisation is to say that the Dalai Lama knows about Buddhism. Although that’s as much gushing as I will do this time around.
The older incarnation of Webster is a pathetic, beige suburban type that all people dread becoming in middle age; but that nevertheless seems to be the fate for many people. His amiable and insulated existence makes him frustrated. So he pokes and probes deeply into his past. All the while, there is a deeply unsettling sense of time running out, and death waiting in the wings.
The rifts and cracks in this novel don’t appear until later on: once the characters are comfortably ensconced and taking a cup of tea and biscuits. It’s a thoroughly English book, in the way that England was in the middle of last century. With a sexually repressed and morally forthright middle class that sought to squash any hanky panky before it started. A cast of naysayers who judge a ‘loose woman’ with a blanket condemnation; that goes backwards into the past, and forwards into the future.
This book exposes the blind spots that are inherent in these moral judgements. It exposes in a spectacular way, the (now quaint) judgements about sex, gender and class that hassled our grandparents in Britain. There’s a sense of closed hands over mouths and talk behind curtains, done in a subtle way that only Barnes can do.
Subjects and themes traversed in this book include: the faulty nature of human memory; the intersection between remembered and recorded history; and long held ideas that shatter like a mirror pane inside of the mind. Barnes won the Man Booker Prize for this novel and deservedly so. It will linger long in the memory after the final page is read. The epic scale of this story isn’t indicated by the meagre 150 pages – it’s a complete masterpiece!