Confession time first.
To my shame, I had never read any Julian Barnes until my Delhi book club selected his (now Booker prize winning) novella The Sense of an Ending. It was short listed when we decided to read it, and had won by the time we met.
I am far and away the oldest in this book club by quite an embarrassing margin, and not that age directly influences how one reacts to a piece of literature, but I did find that I definitely empathised more with some parts of the book than my younger friends.
And now for the novel.
It is a beautifully written, exquisitely crafted exploration of history and memory and how we remember our past.
The central character and narrator is Anthony Webster, in his early 60s at the time of writing. His life, as he tells it, has been a placid uneventful one. Married, amiable divorce, one child, grand-children, now quiet retirement.
But there is a chapter of his early life as a university student that had a profound effect on him over 40 years ago, and has now come back to ruffle the calm uneventful waters of his life.
The novel opens with Anthony and his 3 friends Alex, Colin and Adrian as rather callow teenage school boys. Well, that is true of the first 3 but not really of Adrian, who is ferociously intelligent and who takes life much more seriously than his classmates.
Anthony falls in love with Veronica, has awkward sexual encounters with her, the threat of pregnancy and/or marriage always looming over their fumblings, and eventually they split up. The 4 friends drift apart. Anthony gets married to Margaret, has one daughter, gets divorced but keeps in vague, genial contact with his ex-wife.
As the events of 40 years ago are remembered and played out in Anthony’s memory and life, he often consults his ex-wife for guidance as to how he should best handle the sequence of events that follows. She is a down-to-earth foil to his desire to revisit his past life and loves.
There is a sudden rush of events and revelations in the closing pages of the book that are wholly unexpected, and make you, the reader, re-evaluate Anthony’s relationships and judgements.
Moving, clear and limpid prose, tinged with nostalgia for age and memory and history.
A beautiful book.
Published by Jonathan Cape, the hardback is available for £12.99.
To buy this book – which is truly wonderful – simply click on the link below: