A quick rundown… Tony receives some money and a diary from his first girlfriend’s mother on her death. This prompts reminiscence through his youth and trying to understand his friend’s death years ago.
Strengths: Barnes is an excellent writer and the voice of Tony is particularly authentic.
Weaknesses: Tony sometimes just ‘doesn’t get it’, which is frustrating.
Why I read it: Winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize and I was looking for a quick read
Rating: 8.5 out of 10
If you liked this, try: Starter for Ten by David Nicholls (if you enjoyed Tony’s uni days)
I only became aware of the hype for this book when it became short listed and then the winner of last year’s Man Booker Prize. When I saw it in real life, I was somewhat shocked that such a slim book had so many people raving. But don’t judge a book by its size, it’s the words that make it matter.
The premise of the book is simple – the gift of money and a friend’s diary from an ex-girlfriend’s mother gets Tony reminiscing. And thinking. And wondering. And debating (mainly with his ex-wife) whether he is/was in love with the ex-girlfriend, Veronica. So he decides to catch up with Veronica, but Tony’s a bit slow on the uptake and still doesn’t understand what happened or what Veronica is trying to tell him.
Sometimes I didn’t understand exactly what it was Tony was misunderstanding. The ending certainly is in that field and it made me wonder if we’re all just as blind as Tony is at times. Misunderstanding or ‘just not getting it’ seemed to be a theme of the novel. The characters seemed to be reluctant to spell things out for Tony at times (Margaret, his ex-wife, is more tolerant than Veronica who gets frustrated). I suppose it wouldn’t be as much of a novel if everything was spelled out.
The passing of time and the effect it has on distant memories is another theme- is Tony remembering things correctly or with selective changes? We see that his memory cannot always be relied upon; he states he was accepting of Veronica entering a relationship with old school friend Adrian, but later a vitriolic letter appears from Tony to Adrian. What else is he missing in the narrative?
The prose of course is beautiful and it’s a testament to Barnes that we continue to feel for Tony even through his foibles. We’re just as eager to find out the truth as he is.