[Winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize]
This brilliant, concise novella kept me reading into the night. Barnes delicately unfolds his minimalist exploration of memory and history and exposes the downside of a self-obsessed man who can’t see the grass for the trees. Centered on the schoolboy friendship of Tony Webster
with intellectual Adrian Finn and two other boys, Alex and Colin, painful lessons are learned by the narrator and by the reader.
Set in the late
Sixties, the early sections detail the moral constrictions of that decade that hover over Tony as he tumbles into a sexually frustrated and unfulfilled adolescence. In an era where class is paramount and where parents dread the closeness of adolescent friendship, free love is only for some people: "the more you liked a girl, the better matched you
were, the less your chance of sex.”
School discussions on the nature of history are likened to "a raw onion sandwich...[that] just repeats."
These years become an important symbol for the boys’ healthy, growing camaraderie,
though their bourgeoning friendships are tempered by the unexpected suicide of a classmate. In an incident that sets him apart from his friends, Tony meets lovely Veronica Ford, jumpstarting his mission to
lose his virginity. Tony has more on his mind than intellectual musings on the nature of chance.
Meeting frequently for clandestine exchanges, the couple begin a sly flirtation, a mix of innocence and gentle mockery that reaches its apex when Tony visits Veronica’s home at Chislehurst. Constantly constipated and forced into a mock-heroism, Tony’s humiliating weekend ends up full of class accusations
as the rather naive young man finds himself ill at ease among what he views as “a posher and more socially skilled family.”
Patronized by Veronica’s father, loftily scrutinized by her brother, and insultingly manipulated by Veronica, only the memories of Mrs. Ford’s kindness and her carefree, rather dashing nature get Tony through the tumultuous days and weeks that follow. Even when the first promise of love seem to validate and vindicate Tony, the consequences of that weekend will have a profound impact on his reliability and truthfulness.
Unfolding his provocative study in first person, Barnes winds us twofold through Tony’s existential angst as his flawed hero coils around the floor of marriage, fatherhood, and mid-life challenges. Life goes by, and time delivers Tony into middle age and a
bald, bored, paranoid retirement. His irritating priggishness and smugness are always on display,
at no time more than when Veronica returns after forty years, threatening to unravel all of Tony's mistaken notions and skewed expectations.
Tony’s store of mislaid memories shift and change while Barnes’s clever handling of them holds the novel’s unique literary conceit. The final pages are remarkable, not just for showing Tony’s lifelong callowness but for the surprise revelation that Tony really has no choice but to confront his doggedness, disillusionment and final shame.