Narrated by Richard Morant
Length: 4 hours 38 minutes
Tony Webster and his group of friends were inseparable during their heyday. Young, intelligent and driven, the group expands to include Adrian, a very serious and scholarly boy, who becomes the de facto leader of the group—a boy whom all the rest admire and glean understanding from. When Tony becomes involved with a young woman named Veronica, he naturally spends less time with the group. But things with Veronica are strained from the beginning and Tony can’t understand why she rebuffs his physical advances time and time again. Now many years later, Tony is a middle aged man reflecting back on his days with the group and the unexpected turns that befell his relationship with Veronica. When an unexpected incident puts Veronica in his path once again, Tony finds himself unnaturally curious about her and her life, and also his friend Adrian whom he once felt such a fondness for. But at the heart of his curiosity is a secret that he discovers through clues that Veronica grudgingly gives to him, and what he uncovers may threaten not only his sense of self but the memories of bygone days that he once held so dear.
This book was the winner of the Man Booker Prize for 2011, and it was a relatively short listen. Other reviewers have stated that this book would be best read in one sitting and I have to agree with them. I listened to this book over the course of a week and I have to admit that I think breaking apart the narrative in this way caused my opinion of this book to suffer. The audio version was narrated by Richard Morant, whose dulcet British inflections were perfect for this book. Morant had a very soft and gentle voice that he imbued with a great melancholy and a nostalgic edge that suited the story’s flavor wonderfully. I enjoyed listening to him voice the thoughts of the reminiscing Tony.
I can’t quite put my finger on why this book was not as great as I was hoping it would be. Barnes certainly has a graceful and intense way of writing but, for me, there was an utterly cryptic conclusion, and that bothered me. I felt that there was a gradually pressing urgency to the story that was never fully delivered upon, and part of that may have had to do with the fact that I broke this story into pieces instead of digesting it whole. It was a very introspective narrative, focused mainly on three people, and because of that, the whole story felt concentrated and magnified on small events that would later become momentous. It’s not the story that I had issue with, it was the reveal at the end. I just didn’t think it was as impactful or clear as it could have been. Had I not been listening very carefully, I would have missed it altogether.
The writing, however, was outstanding, and often I wished that I was reading the book in print so that I could pore over some of the more beautiful sentences over and over again. Barnes has a way of making his story read like poetry, and because of that fact, I’m loathe to say that this book wasn’t a success on that front. I greatly enjoyed listening to Tony’s mental cogitation and ruminations, and found that Barnes created a very elegant narrative in which to place his characters. Judging this book on the writing alone, I would eagerly say that it was a success. There was great care given to the general construction of the story’s language, and that might have been why I felt let down at the end: the writing left me anticipatory and the ending let me down.
Veronica and Tony, the two major players, were very different types of people, yet they had some very striking things in common. The fact that this was almost indistinguishable until the very end of the story was something that I think was deftly maneuvered. Themes of loss, mortality, and ambiguity of memory are rife within this tale but carefully interwoven through an exquisite and microscopic lens of character development. “A sense of an ending” becomes loaded into many variations throughout the tale, gently rippling through each word in the text and creating untold possibility for the reader. The conclusion is more than a little open-ended and I think that’s what disappointed me. Thinking deeply about it only provokes more questions that I wish had been answered.
While I really enjoyed this audio book, I didn’t love it, and that’s frustrating to me. It had all the components of a superb book but Barnes just didn’t assemble them in the correct proportions to take it to the next level. I haven’t read many reviews on it so I am not sure what the general consensus is, but this reader was left wanting. If you’re a lover of character studies with very open endings I would recommend this book to you. I would recommend it to every lover of literary fiction on the strength of the writing alone. An intelligent and astute book, but one that might frustrate some readers.
This audiobook was provided as a complimentary review copy.