Reviewed by Ann Skea ([email protected]).
“some approximate memories, which time has deformed into certainties”, that’s how Barnes’s narrator, Tony Webster, describes this exploration of his past. He begins with schooldays, because, “that’s where it all began”. And in his memory he re-creates the friendships, the teenage ambitions and uncertainties, a youthful love affair, a marriage and an amicable divorce, all culminating in a comfortable, reasonably active retirement. It is an ordinary story of an ordinary man, until a lawyer’s letter arrives to disturb his complacency.
Barnes is very good at capturing what it is like to be a bright boy at school testing a growing awareness of the world in interactions with friends and school masters. Tony and his good friends, Colin and Alex, share this experience. The inclusion of Adrian, clever and more serious, in their group changes the dynamics subtly but the friendships last until university, careers and marriages draw them apart. It is Adrian, however, who marries Tony’s first serious girl-friend; and it is Adrian who commits suicide at the age of twenty-two, and who, years later, precipitates Tony’s self-examination.
For some reason, Barnes divides this book into two. The first part, which is lively and youthful, ends with Tony in retirement looking back on the memories of a survivor. For a paragraph or two in the second part, I expected a different narrator with a different perspective on the past. But, no, it is still Tony, although he sounds more subdued, older and more orientated to the present. In part two he is less sure of himself, reliant on the views and advice of his former wife, and more self-deceiving. He is still relying on memory to recount events but it is much more recent memory, disturbed by his obsession with obtaining Adrian’s diary, which has unexpectedly and bizarrely been left to him by Adrian’s mother-in-law. It is easy to lose patience with Tony in this second half, and the delaying tactics of the author are more obvious as we are led towards a revelation which will make us, the readers, re-assess our understanding of Tony’s story; just as it made him re-assess his memory of his own past.
“What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed”, Tony says at the start of this book. But can you be blamed for a chain of events which began with something you did witness – something you did and then forgot about?
“Towards the end of your life”, says Tony, “You are allowed a long moment of pause, time enough to ask the question: what else have I done wrong?”. It is an interesting question but one which few of us have to face in quite the way Tony did.