I read Julian Barnes’ 2011 Booker Prize winner in part to escape the crime fiction reading ghetto I’ve happily trapped myself in over the past few months (with only a few Philip K Dick’s to break the mould; and his stuff melds crime into the mix anyway). As my three regular readers will now know, I love crime fiction, but it’s nice to step away from a constant diet of it every once in a while.
Tony Webster is an average retired gentleman with a pleasantly average life. He’s been happy to accept a quiet existence for a long time as a quiet marriage, family and eventual divorce can testify. He reminisces about school, his mates and their friendship with Adrian, a ridiculously intelligent young man who definitely isn’t destined for an average life.
They all go their separate ways to University but vow to keep in touch. Tony falls for another student Veronica who is haughty, opinionated, and somewhat more determined than him. They date for a while, which includes an awkward weekend with her family, of whom the mother seems to be the only one who shows any real warmth towards Tony. He also takes her to meet his friends. She takes a shine to Adrian, but not in any pronounced way. Though when Tony and Veronica’s differences inevitably split them up she ends up with Adrian, who in an old-fashioned gesture asks Tony to understand their intentions. Tony replies with two letters. The first he sends almost as a joke. A fine, whatever, type of letter, but second he sends when he is drunk. A go to hell letter, as it were. They lose contact with each other after that.
A few months later Adrian commits suicide and eventually Tony and the rest of his school friends drift apart. Tony marries and lives out his ordinary life. So when he receives a letter telling him that Veronica’s mother has left him a letter, £500, and Adrian’s diary in her will he is intrigued. He becomes even more intrigued when he realises that Veronica won’t hand over the diary. He slowly gets back in contact with her and finds that his memory of events all those years ago is not what it seemed.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this novel, as I’d never read any of Barnes’ previous work, but I’m damn glad I read it. In its own economical and laidback manner this beautiful short novel works as a kind of detective fiction. The only difference is that the narrator is looking into his own past, finding out things about his friend and himself that might be better left dimmed by the passage of time. The language is concise and clean and the narrative is beautifully weighted. There’s a point where you wonder when the narrator is going to get on with telling the story until you realise he’s been telling it all along, we’ve just been too slow to recognise it, kind of like the narrator himself; told at one point that, “You just don’t get it…” TSOAE is so good, in my humble opinion at least, that it’s knocked Roger Smith’s Capture off its perch as the finest novel I have read this year. Beautifully written, well plotted, and with real emotional weight, this is work of the highest quality. Highly recommended.