Archive for June, 2013


Amazon describes the plot of this Man Booker prize-winner as follows:

‘Tony Webster and his clique first met Adrian Finn at school. Sex-hungry and book-hungry, they would navigate the girl-less sixth form together, trading in affectations, in-jokes, rumour and wit. Maybe Adrian was a little more serious than the others, certainly more intelligent, but they all swore to stay friends for life.

Now Tony is retired. He’s had a career and a single marriage, a calm divorce. He’s certainly never tried to hurt anybody. Memory, though, is imperfect. It can always throw up surprises, as a lawyer’s letter is about to prove.’

An intriguing premise – and the novel has been universally acclaimed by critics. The Daily Telegraph called it ‘A masterpiece’, the Independent said, ‘Mesmerising… the concluding scenes grip like a thriller – a whodunit of memory and morality’, while the Observer described it as ‘of universal importance’.

So what did the Berwick book group members think of this slim novel? As usual, reviews were mixed, ranging from wildly enthusiastic, via ‘meh’ to very unimpressed. Martin could not make it to the meeting, but he sent a written review.

‘HEALTH WARNING! This review is more of a rambling commentary which probably says more about me than the book. Feel free to edit or ignore in part or totality. I read it with a sense of deja vu caused by having read it already. However, until reminded almost sentence by sentence of my familiarity with the book I could not remember anything of the unfolding plot right up until the final twist. When I did reach the last page I remembered feeling then as now, “What have I just read?” We have all, I suspect, been guilty of inappropriate, cruel or thoughtless actions words or even letters in our youth which only haunt our darkest dreams. It can’t be often that they resurface 30 or 40 years on. Even then I cannot see this spiteful letter causing anything more than a snort of derision. Neither can I imagine a liaison with an older woman, even one with a seriously disturbed offspring being a cause for suicide with or without the offending note. (Being in a relationship with someone like Veronica may qualify). We all/I ?? have made the journey from teenage gaucheness to aged mediocrity quite happily and this is the fate of the majority of people but Mr Barnes does draw it very accurately. Other people’s relationships can end unhappily and I feel that those with a predisposition to self destruction will find another trigger, if one is removed. I certainly feel the second suicide had another cause. Your mother having a child with your boyfriend could make you bitter and twisted, but Veronica had a head start on that progress already. Why her mother should want to gift monies and diaries is not explained. In that whole menage the recipient, in my view, has the least important role. This is a very odd book and a compelling one in the same way as a slow motion train crash is compelling. I knew there would be an unhappy outcome but I could not turn away.’

Of those at the meeting, Margaret was one of the book’s champions. She really enjoyed the exploration of memory and loss and identified with the sections set in the 1960’s; for her the period detail was spot on. She also loved the elegance and clarity of the writing style. Glynis also loved the book – again for the beauty of the writing, and also for the way Barnes explored the loop of false perception, where recall of an event is always filtered or distorted in order to reinforce one’s own perception of self. Paula greatly enjoyed what she described as a ‘cool (in tone)’ book about memory and perception.

Jill was in the middle of the appreciation scale – she liked the way this ‘very English’ novel explored relationships and she enjoyed the well-described ‘vignettes’ but the twist at the end of the book produced a ‘so what?’ response for her. Helen did not like anything about it; she thought there was too much telling and not enough showing, and she also had a ‘so what?’ response when she reached the end of the book.

I admired this beautifully-written novel, although I agree with Paula about the cool tone. It was a slim volume but it carried within it a very big idea, which was illustrated with a dramatically potent ‘fable’ of a story. I loved the way that the theme was captured early on, on page 12, with Adrian’s few lines on the subjective nature of history/historians. The letter, when it was finally revealed, was as much of a shock to me as it was to Tony – I had been fooled by his unreliable narration – and the ending, which forced him to reassess his whole past life and relationships, was a real seismic shift. That ‘if…’ question was a truly destructive force in Tony’s case.

We ended the meeting with a very interesting discussion of what Tony’s future would be like. Was the revelation a life and perception changing event from which he would not recover, or would he start to rewrite his history again?

Ann Coburn


About the book group

The Berwick Book Group meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the First Class Passenger Lounge on the platform of Berwick Train Station at 6.30pm.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit

June 2013
« May   Jul »