I live in a teeny weeny village in Wiltshire which, despite holding only around 100 houses, manages to support the following: Primary school; parish church; pub; village hall; book group; toddler group; art class; bridge club; local listings magazine and I am sure more besides.
Amongst other things, I belong to the book group which, if truth be told, is more like the village catch-up group. There are 8 of us and though chronologically I am the youngest by maybe 25 or 30 years (so hard to tell these days!) I am definitely amongst contemporaries when it comes to mind, spirit, energy and humour. (On the latter point, one of our members would make mincemeat of Dames Thora and Patricia, were Alan Bennett to make a ‘talking heads’ with (of) her!)
Aaaanyway, the point I’m getting to is that this month’s book is the 2011 Man Booker winner, “The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes. I remember reading somewhere that the judges had come under some criticism for applying a ‘readability’ criteria to the judging, as if somehow something being readable makes it less worthy. Odd logic, but there go go. Suffice to say, the book’s a gem. I read it in about 3 hours and have just begun it again as its possible I missed some finer subtleties – in fact, highly likely given the flood of shocked tears that escaped the confines of my oversize sunglasses when sitting (in the shade) on a train.
Barnes’s trick with this book is to draw something extraordinary and totally compelling from a bunch of utterly ordinary individuals leading utterly ordinary lives. The layers and depths emerge little by little through the memories of the main protagonist, with effortless interweaving of past and present, fact and reality. It’s really so, so clever.
What’s left me pondering, though, is that on finishing the book, there was not only the wonderment of Barnes’s writing, but also a sense of desolation – the two emotions making rather uneasy bedfellows for a time. I concluded that despite my distinctly eeyore-ish tendencies, I must fundamentally be an optimist as for me an ending always seems to be the beginning of something else. By comparison, I was unsure whether Barnes’s protagonist had anything left in his life and this was unerringly sad. After all, he was only in his sixties and my friends at book group are not only there, but in some cases a very long way beyond with full, energised, happy and meaningful lives. (Aware as I am of the risk of sounding trite, I should probably clarify that its not all roses in the garden and we don’t live in Dibley, but hopefully you take my point)
So, with a certain degree of trepidation, I’m thinking about a delicate way of raising this as a conversation point when the book group next meets, as I reckon there is an interesting discussion lurking in there. I will confirm in writing my continued existence as soon as possible thereafter…