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ENGLAND, ENGLAND by Julian Barnes Kirkus Star


by Julian Barnes

Pub Date: May 10th, 1999
ISBN: 0-375-40582-8
Publisher: Knopf

A mischievous satire on the marketing of illusion and a trenchant analysis of a rootless woman’s interrupted pursuit of authenticity are joined in a highly original way in this consummately entertaining novel, the eighth by the dependably clever British author. The major actions occur in an economically depleted near-future England, which almost gratefully succumbs to the utopian blandishments of Sir Jack Pitman, a visionary entrepreneur (and Falstaffian compound of Rupert Murdoch and billionaire Guy Grand of Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian). Sir Jack’s “Project” is a reconstruction of places and scenes familiar from English history, populated by actors portraying equally familiar figures (historical and fictional), situated on the Isle of Wight for the pleasure of sightseers who’d otherwise have to visit multiple real places. Barnes (Cross Channel, 1996, etc.) has a fine time devising the unforeseen consequences of Sir Jack’s scheme (the current King, on retainer as an incarnation of himself, is an oversexed moron given to harassing the likes of “Nell Gwynn” and “Connie Chatterley”; “Dr. Johnson” is a clinical depressive; “Robin Hood and His Merrie Men” inconsiderately rebel; and so forth). Tables are briefly turned when Sir Jack’s “Appointed Cynic” Martha Cochrane uncovers evidence that her employer’s monthly visits to his “Auntie May” are in fact sexual adventures during which his infancy is “replicated”—but Barnes’s deft plot has several further twists lurking nearby. And, to turn the screw even tighter, the Huxleyan portrayal of “England, England” (Sir Jack’s name for his “Project”) is framed by extended scenes depicting Martha’s troubled childhood (a history she scorns to remember) and her old age after “The Island” has literally replaced England and the question of what is and is not real in her experience remains unanswered. A provocative dystopian fable that’s also a superb vehicle for Barnes’s unfailingly fiendish riffs on contemporary political, economic, and sexual underhandedness and overkill.