First Sentence: I remember, in no particular order:
– a shiny inner wrist;
– steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;
– gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house;
– a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams;
– another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;
– bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door.
And so begins Julian Barnes’ newest piece of fiction. This is his 11th novel and is one of his slimmest books. That’s not to say it is lacking anything, rather it is an exquisitely crafted book where no sentence goes to waste. Ostensibly it tells the tale of Tony Webster, now a retired divorcé looking back on his younger self and his previous relationships. When he is bequeathed a small sum of money from an unexpected source he is drawn back to his life as a young man. It is however, so much more than that. It is a meditation on history, on memory, and on the unreliability of both. As is mentioned in the book on a couple of occasions, history is the lies of victors. But also, the self-delusions of the defeated. It is this uncertainty that carries the story along as we are never fully aware of what actually happened, and what was only imagined or misremembered. The focal point of the book is centred around Tony’s first girlfriend Veronica, and one weekend in particular when he goes to stay in Veronica’s family home. (In some ways this is reminiscent of Cecil Valance when he goes to stay at Two Acres in The Stranger’s Child as this also proves to be a weekend revisited and reconstructed again and again in the minds of all the characters involved.) Most of this weekend has become blurred by time for Tony. In fact:
I was so ill at ease that I spent the entire weekend constipated: this is my principal factual memory. The rest consists of impressions and half-memories which may therefore be self-serving […]
It is this problem, or rather this honesty that gives the book its charm and it is also this confusion that adds to our sense of intrigue when we are reading. We are never fully sure what to believe when we are told:
Again, I must stress that this is my reading now of what happened then. Or rather, my memory now of my reading then of what was happening at the time.
Overall, this is a great book and a thoroughly enjoyable read.
* * * *
Last Sentence: There is great unrest.
Last Sentence explained: The book finishes with just a general thought on life and what we all experience when most of our life is behind us and we are facing death. After Tony and Veronica break up, Veronica starts seeing Adrian Finn, one of Tony’s good friends. Tony is very bitter and sends a hate filled letter to her. Later, Adrian kills himself (the bathwater mentioned in the opening sentence), and later again, Tony is posthumously left five hundred pounds and Adrian’s diary by Veronica’s mother ( the person who laughingly tosses the frying pan in the opening sentence). Veronica withholds the diary however, and this is where the secrecy and uncertainty begins. It turns out in the end that Adrian had an affair with Veronica’s mother and he fathered a handicapped child. Tony only discovers this right at the end of the book. His memory is unclear throughout and he is trying to remember events from a long time ago. Memory and all the possible lives that could have been lived haunt Tony in this book, and in some ways, haunt us too as we read it. And also when we look back and remember it.