Julian Barnes is one of my favourite novelists,and has been for many years.It's often overlooked that, as Dan Kavanaugh, he wrote four pseudonymous detective novels, featuring a private eye called Duffy, the first of which was especially good. And his interest in plot and mystery is evident, I think, in his Man Booker Prize winning novel from last year, The Sense of an Ending.
This book has so many merits, it's difficult to know where to begin. First of all, it's short!. And that, almost always is a Good Thing. Barnes shows that a great deal of ground can be covered in a limited space - if you have the requisite skill. There are some very witty lines, and some painfully acute insights into human behaviour. Although the stories are very different, some reviewers have suggested the book has something in common with The Great Gatsby. And I can see there are one or two similarities. Will Barnes' book wear as well? Too early for any of us to say, but I rather hink it deserves to.
This is a book that is subtle in a very pleasing way. Even the title, echoing Kermode, is agreeably ambiguous. Many people have pointed out that it's one of those novels which cries out to be read more than once,and I strongly agree. Tony. the elderly divorced man who tells the story, is told more than once that he "doesn't get it", and on a first reading I too felt there was quite a bit I'd missed. So it proved - Tony is a classic unreliable narrator, and it was good, after finishing the book, to go back to the early pages and look for some of the clues (and there are clues, placed with Christie-like cunning) that help one to understand the story of Adrian Finn, his suicide, and its aftermath. There are also a couple of red herrings, a cryptic equation worthy of J.J.Connington, and an unexpected "solution". One of these days, I bet, someone will write a learned article on the connections between this book and detective fiction (it would be unwise to overstate those connections, but I believe they do exist.).
Because it's a short book, I don't want to include spoilers. Suffice to say that Tony's story begins in his youth, whizzes through most of his life and then really takes off when he receives a mysterious message from the lawyer acting for the estate of a woman he only ever met once. He finds that memories, and his account of his own past, are fallible to say the least. And that is not all....This is a fascinating book, strongly recommended.