Publisher, Year: Knopf, 2011
Other Works: England, England and Arthur & George
Flags: Moderate language, Explicit references
Rating: A+, or Must Read Now!
Challenge: 100 Books
Premise: Prompted by a curious package, an older man reflects back on his life and some events of his youth that may turn out to be very different than he remembers.
I got this book for Christmas last year, with a nice little gift certificate tucked in the front cover. I always get nervous when I buy a book that I haven’t read before (even though this one was technically purchased for me). Yes, it’s true—I will go and buy a book after I’ve read it from the library. That way, I spend wisely! Anyway, this one turned out to be not worth the nerves at all. It was a beautiful masterpiece, in my opinion, and completely deserving of the Booker prize. That being said, and as much as youth is discussed in this book, I would not recommend this one for younger readers.
The book opens with a group of boys, Tony being our narrator, in high school, debating ideas and philosophy. One boy, Adrian, is clearly the intellectual superior, which makes him the most popular of the group. His comments are always surprising, and yet somehow, spot on. As the boys grow up and go off the college, they grow apart, but each one tries to maintain a friendship with Adrian, Tony included. Tony experiences new things in school, the most important of which is that he gets his first girlfriend. When these two worlds collide, it will set in motion a series of events that will end in tragedy, which will come back to haunt him in his later years, revealing new information that will grip Tony with the realization that things have not always been what they seemed, that perhaps even he is not the person he thought he was.
[Disclaimer: I’m not going to talk about the actual plot points of this book because I feel you have to read them as Barnes intended. There’s an itching temptation to give away too much. And I hope that will be enough to entice you read it yourself!]
I think this book starts out sort of ordinarily pretentious. Those opening pages resemble what some have related to Dead Poets Society, and I have to admit that they did conjure up those images: standing on desks, clapping in a circle, ripping out pages, opening young minds. But it soon takes a turn, and by the end, I could see how every paragraph, every sentence was meticulously chosen—every moment a meaning. Not a word was wasted. And meaning poured forth, like a river of truth.
I love Barnes’s thoughts on the young and the old. The audacity of youth: the innocence, the dreams, the freedom. And that is juxtaposed against the reality of old age: the ordinariness of life, when dreams fall away and the everyday takes shape. He calls it comfortable, peaceable. Tony chose the peaceable way, but in the end, did he choose comfort over fulfilling his potential? Or did he really never have a lot of potential in the first place?
When we are young, we want to believe we are special; we want to believe we are good. When we think back on our memories, we see ourselves in the critical light of the time. We don’t analyze our actions and decisions with the wisdom that age brings, nor are we in any way unbiased. And Tony gets to experience the unpleasantness of questioning himself, after all those years. Here he says of youth: “What you fail to do is look ahead, and then imagine yourself looking back from that future point. Learning the new emotions that time brings. Discovering, for example, that as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been.”
And yet, time marches on. It continues forward no matter what our regrets or fears. Whatever we have done with our lives, ordinary or extraordinary or rash, it is done. One event follows another, and each domino falls. And all those events are gathered in to produce a person’s character. The problem is, that the discrepancy between what I think my character entails and what others do, can be vastly different. And as time goes on, as we’ve established it inevitably will, those memories get hazy and misshapen. How can we really be sure of anything? Even something as personal as ourselves? Our own lives? Who we are.
I am going to go so far as to say that this book is genius. It’s a short read but so packed with meaning, I am still reeling from it. I know it will merit rereads in the future and continue to become only that more valuable to me. Oh, and the other thing: I loved it. I absolutely loved it.