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It is a thoroughly British novel – not only because it declaims history to be not just the “lies of the victorious” but also “the delusions of the defeated” ,the British having contributed to most of the history of the past few centuries, but because it has the authentic stamp of Julian Barnes’ writing style.
The book starts with a memory (or rather a slew of them) and ends with another. And these memories belong to Tony Webster, a retired lawyer, now contemplating the myriad possibilities of a quiet and uneventful retirement. Enter a mysterious will and Tony Webster suddenly finds himself re-examining his whole life, starting from his school days when he first met Adrian Finn.
Tony Webster first meets Adrian Finn in sixth form at school. Part of a group of four, they navigate their clueless way through the rest of their school years intending to stay friends forever. Their time together in the sixth form with Adrian frequently denouncing his teachers’ explanations with his constant refrain of “that is philosophically self-evident” sees him winning the unreserved admiration of the group. Yet, Adrian, promising and talented Adrian, ends up with his wrists slashed at the young age of twenty-two.
Tony Webster now has the unsettling task of re-examining his past to figure out why his old mate’s suicide wasn’t as straightforward as he’d supposed it to be. His walk down memory lane is assisted by a few of the characters from his past, but clueless as he was in the sixth form and still is Tony finds himself hopping exasperatedly in circles and on the verge of unraveling a secret he’s sure he isn’t going to like.
Written with a terse, almost thrilling pace, the seemingly empty plot leads us straight into the ambush Julian Barnes sets for us at the very end. The book is masterfully written and takes you along for the ride, all the while reinforcing your own theories of the fragility of human morality and memory. And then seemingly, out of nowhere, Barnes flicks on the light leaving you bewildered, open-mouthed and gaping at the sheer brilliance.
It gives you the sense its ending before you’ve hardly started but nevertheless leaves you feeling quite unsure about the veracity of your most deepest memories, either cherished or loathed. “Perhaps”, you find yourself thinking “memories are what we have forgotten, not what we remember”. But that is philosophically self-evident.