Read in a Vintage books edition 2012.
Plot outline – Part 1
The narrator of the novel, Tony Webster, looking back over 40 years to his youth, tells us about his group of friends at school in the 1960s. The tight knit group is joined by a slightly detached fourth member, Adrian. Adrian sees the world from a different perspective from the others, but is clearly very bright, and goes on to Cambridge. Tony goes to Bristol, another friend to Sussex, and the fourth goes into his father’s business (Barnes having fun there with the subtle gradations of university attainment and status.) Just before they leave school another boy commits suicide, ostensibly because he has got his girlfriend pregnant. This is a portent of things to come, a rather clunking clue in fact. There are along the way some irritating “if this were a novel” comments from the narrator, drawing our attention to the artificiality of the construct, just in case we weren’t aware that we are reading a book rather than watching real life unfold.
At university Tony has a relationship with a girl, Veronica, including an awkward weekend stay at her parents’ house. He later introduces her to his former school-friends; shortly afterwards they separate, and shortly after that she and Adrian get involved. Hearing from them about the relationship, Tony writes a spiteful letter cursing them. In the end it appears to have been a literal curse, because Adrian commits suicide. At the time we are told this was an existential act of someone unable to see the point of life, but it doesn’t take much to detect that it might be more complicated than that.
Forty years flash past, and we are brought to the present. As this is a routine and predictable discursion on the fallibility of memory, we know that the way Tony remembers things is unlikely to be an accurate recollection of the past (even Tony knows and acknowledges this). It comes as no surprise therefore when these events are given a new focus. This is precipitated by the death of Veronica’s mother, who bequeaths Tony £500 “blood money” (Veronica’s description) and Adrian’s diary. We are left to guess how she came into possession of this document, but Veronica has requisitioned it and refuses to honour her mother’s will.
Tony pesters Veronica for the diary, which leads to several abrupt, uncomfortable meetings. She persistently tells T he “doesn’t get it” – there is clearly some dark secret from their youth that has yet to emerge. She takes him to meet a disabled person who we are led to believe is her child. Finally, in the last scenes from the novel it is suggested that the disabled person is Veronica’s brother, the product of a late pregnancy of her mother’s (am I the only one offended by the simple leap that equates late pregnancy with an undefined disability?) It is also suggested, but never made explicit, that the child’s father was Adrian, and that Tony’s spiteful letter had been the catalyst of this affair, which in turn had led to Adrian’s suicide and Veronica’s embitterment.
Although Barnes is trying hard to be modern here – having a flawed narrator retelling tales of their past through the perspective of the present, and then having to re-evaluate that initial view because of an unexpected catalyst – is in many ways very traditional.
Does it work as a novel? Well the Booker judges obviously though so, for what that is worth. But the book is not without its problems. First of these is Veronica. Her behaviour is irrational. Even if we fill in some of the gaps of the story in line with Barnes’ s hints and assume that Tony’s letter to Adrian was the catalyst for an affair with veronica’s mother, and subsequently Adrian’s suicide, this still asks us to accept that:
a) Veronica believes that Tony’s letter was the sole reason for the affair and suicide, and that none of the principal actors bore virtually any responsibility for their behaviour. She maintains a relationship with Sarah, her mother, until her death in old age, despite the suggestion that she (Sarah) had stolen her boyfriend from her, borne him a child, and provoked his suicide.
b) She would bottle up her anger and resentment for forty years without saying anything to Tony
c) When finally her mother dies and the diary comes to light she is willing to show Tony the consequences of his actions, but not simply tell him. If he doesn’t “get it” telling him he doesn’t get it seems a pretty stupid waste of time.
None of this is in any way psychologically convincing. It just doesn’t ring true. Barnes tries to disguise this by showing us events solely from Tony’s point of view, which works for a while, but not after some reflection on the puzzles he sets us at the end of the novel.
Some other observations:
· The novel opens with a series of vivid images, almost all of which relate to water in one way or another, including steam, the Severn Bore, and bodily fluids being washed down a basin. What is the significance of this symbolism – is water being used to represent memory, or time?
· There are some strong connections between this novel and Amis’s On Chesil Beach – a relatively banal incident in the early but unliberated 1960’s looked back on in older age and seen in a different light.
· The novel is to my mind about a third too long – the meetings between Veronica and Tony where she seethes with anger about his betrayal could easily be collapsed into a single, much more powerful meeting. This would have made it a long short story rather than a novella, and disqualified it for the Booker – is Barnes really that cynical?