A man’s closest-held beliefs about a friend, former lover and himself are undone in a subtly devastating novella from Barnes.
The author’s slim 11th novel (and fourth to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) shouldn’t be mistaken for a frivolous one: It’s an intense exploration of how we write our own histories and how our actions in moments of anger can have consequences that stretch across decades. The novel’s narrator, Anthony, is in late middle age, and recalling friendships from adolescence and early adulthood. He’s focused on two people in particular: Adrian, a brilliant but gloomy schoolmate who routinely questioned the certainties of his history teachers, and Veronica, a harridan with whom he has a brief and tempestuous affair. After the breakup, Adrian and Veronica begin their own relationship. Anthony dashes off a bitter letter to Adrian, and when Adrian kills himself soon after, Anthony is willing to credit it to depression. But a letter he receives years later complicates the story. The novel has a love-triangle structure—one of its mysteries has to do with where Veronica’s affections resided. But its focus is more intellectual, as Anthony considers how much of his past history he’s failed to face up to, how willing he is to confront his mistakes and to what degree his own moral failings affected others. Decades after their breakup, Anthony and Veronica are forced to reconnect due to some legal tussling over Adrian’s diary, and their parrying at times becomes painfully intense. The brutality of those exchanges, coolly presented, speaks to Barnes’ skill at balancing emotional tensions and philosophical quandaries.
A knockout. What at first seems like a polite meditation on childhood and memory leaves the reader asking difficult questions about how often we strive to paint ourselves in the best possible light.