Tony Webster and his clique first met Adrian Finn at school. Sex-hungry and book-hungry, they would navigate the girl-less sixth form together, trading in affectations, in-jokes, rumour and wit. Maybe Adrian was a little more serious than the others, certainly more intelligent, but they all swore to stay friends for life.
Now Tony is retired. He’s had a career and a single marriage, a calm divorce. He’s certainly never tried to hurt anybody. Memory, though, is imperfect. It can always throw up surprises, as a lawyer’s letter is about to prove.
~ Blurb from the back of the book
This is a small book just about running on 160 pages or so depending on your edition. But, boy is there a lot going on.
This is a book about memories and perception. A 60-year old man who has led a peaceable calm life, an average man, who’s led an average life of some achievements and some disappointments is suddenly and unexpectedly forced to confront some actions he took as a young man in his 20s. His memories though are not trustworthy and so he has to go back and contact people from his past (specifically his ex-girlfriend) and find out what exactly happened back then.
So, in some ways, this book is a mystery and you all know how much I love a good mystery. But more than that, it is a book about self-deception. All the while I read the book, I found myself thinking about events in my past and wondering whether I remembered them accurately enough, or I have modified my memory so that I can live without guilt/embarrassment. It’s the same issue when we wonder how we are perceived by others.
Tony Webster thinks he is a peaceable, simple, and quiet man. But towards the end of the book, he realizes that he is also too cowardly to face life, to risk anything, to reveal his feelings.
Quite a lot to cover in a tiny little novella, no?
I loved this book in parts. I loved the first part of the book which talks about Tony’s school days with his friends, and then his relationship with his first girlfriend Veronica.
The second part is solid too, however, to enhance the mystery, the author Julian Barnes seems to unnecessarily build up the tension and the mysterious aspect of Veronica. Whenever Tony asks her to help him understand what happened, she tells him repeatedly you didn’t get it then, you don’t get it now and you will never get it, which prompted me to irritably think well, duh, why don’t you tell him then? How on earth is he supposed to understand what she is thinking? But of course, if she told him, there would be no story left, which I feel is the basic weakness of this book.
Some of the plot points are a bit overdone too in my opinion. For example, from the beginning, the story is built in such a way as to make you think that Tony Webster has done something terrible. But really, what he actually did was nothing that significant, and ultimately doesn’t seem to have affected the final course of events in anything except a marginal way. At least, that’s my thought. I am sure other readers would interpret what happens in the last few pages in other different ways. And I hope we have a nice discussion in the comments. This really is a book to read and debate with others later…a very good pick for book clubs.
So, what I am saying is you may like the book or you may not, but whatever your final opinion, this is a book that should be read. The writing is beautiful beyond words, and the philosophy is expressed really well. It really made me think about memory, and aging, and consequences. In style, this is a mature book, and I think the older you get, the more you get out of this book. I do not expect a 20-something to appreciate this book as much as a 40+ or older person.
Watch out for tomorrow’s Teaser Tuesday post for some examples of the beautiful writing in this book.
I read this book as part of the Man Booker Reading challenge.
Thanks to Random House for sending me a copy of this book for review. This is one book to read and savor, and I am definitely going to re-read this again.