Julian Barnes: The Sense of an Ending (2012)

The Sense of an Ending

When I posted my 20 under 200 list last week, Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending was the novel that was mentioned the most and, so, I decided to pick it as the first novel of my project.

I don’t think, I have to write a lengthy summary as many other bloggers have done so already. Just a few words. The narrator, Tony, is in his 60s and looking back on his life. While most of that life is painfully average and there’s not a lot to say about it, his early youth is scrutinized and described in detail. This scrutiny serves a purpose. His past has come back to haunt him and Tony tries to uncover what exactly happened all those years ago, only to find out, his memory is more than a little faulty. While some people and events are still fresh in his mind, a lot has undergone a transformation and changed so much, that the actual events and the remembered events have but little in common.

I loved the way the narrator pieced together his memories, how he tried to make sense, and showed us how, often, we distort our memories to think better of ourselves or forget unpleasant events. I also loved the description of the four high school boys; their idealism that is always paired with more mundane occupations like chasing girls and hoping for sex.

Nonetheless, I can’t say I enjoyed this book. The voice got on my nerves. The way the narrator constantly tried to turn the reader into his accomplice by seeking reassurance, annoyed me. And I found him bland and depressing.

I also found hat there was a profound contradiction at the heart of this novel. On one side we have a very subtle analysis of memory and the tricks it plays on us; on the other side, we have a narrator who is an obtuse bore. For me, these are clearly two different people. One is the author, the other is the narrator. I really don’t think that someone who tells a story like Tony does and who lives such an uneventful life, just drifting, never striving for anything, never questioning, would come up with such amazing passages like this one:

We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I’ve never felt I understood it very well. And I’m not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly : tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing – until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.

This doesn’t sound like our narrator. This sounds like Julian Barnes speaking.

Don’t get me wrong, this novel has a lot to offer. The portrayal of adolescent boys is spot on and endearing. The analysis of memory is fascinating and how the theme was tied into the plot was very well done. I can’t say the end surprised me, but several other revelations did. What kept me from truly enjoying it was the narrator and his way of talking to the reader.


Mary Hocking: The Very Dead of Winter (1993)

The Very Dead of Winter

I’m so glad I came upon Heavenali’s Mary Hocking Month and discovered the brittle beauty of the novel The Very Dead of Winter and its cast of eccentric characters.With her wry humor and sharp eye for social comedy Mary Hocking can be firmly placed in the tradition of British women writers like Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym, Susan Townsend Warner, Beryl Bainbridge and Muriel Spark.

Take a dysfunctional family, put them in a snowed in cottage at Christmas, with one of them slowly dying, and watch what will happen. I can guarantee you it will never be boring. The sisters Florence and Sophia used to spend their childhood holidays at the cottage. Now, in their sixties, they have come here for a special family reunion. Sophia is the owner of the cottage; Sophia’s sister Florence, her dying husband Konrad and their grown-up children Nicholas and Anita are guests.

What would be a testing moment for any family turns into a sometimes tragic, sometimes hilarious adventure. With the exception of Sophia and Konrad, these are some of the most selfish, narcissistic people I’ve ever come across in a novel. Florence is a master manipulator but she’s not very subtle, which leads to hilarious moments. Anita, her daughter, a child psychologist who doesn’t like children, has been under her thumb her whole life. Being with her mother is like being on a battle field when both parties are too tired to strike. They say the nastiest things in the world to each other but they can’t really fight openly.

“My mother is too big for me: She dwarfs everyone around her – except my father,” Anita shouted in to the wind. “There’s never any peace where she is, nowhere I can feel I am me. All my childhood I had to stay clenched tight, ready to parry thrusts from my mother.”

Nicholas isn’t any less dysfunctional he just handles it differently and doesn’t really communicate with any of them.

The book offers wonderful character portraits and an abundance of scenes I’m not likely to forget. In one instance, Florence decides to go to church in the middle of the night, right through the snowed in forest. What would be challenging during the day in summer turns into a dangerous expedition. Anita, although she’s terribly annoyed with her mother, feels obliged to go with her. Of course, it’s far too exhausting and Florence collapses in the middle of the woods. She’s a heavy woman and slender Anita isn’t capable of carrying her. Luckily they stumble over a half-frozen pony, and because she has no means to guide the animal, Anita takes drastic measures. I’m not going to reveal what she does. It’s nothing tragic, just wildly crazy.

Florence is a great character, she’s scheming and manipulative, driven by fear of abandonment, which makes her do foolish things. She lives in constant disappointment with everyone around her, always expecting them to serve her narcissistic purposes. She’s only interested in what people can be or do for her, but takes no interest in their personalities. She has no idea for example who her husband is, where he came from – he is German – or what his dreams and hopes are. Once it’s obvious he will die, filled with the horror of future loneliness, she clumsily tries to capture a widower who lives near by. The ensuing scenes are some of the funniest. Desperate as she is, she even thinks she can manipulate her grown-up children to come back to live with her. One of her favourite techniques is finding her own faults in everyone else.

“Dear God,” Florence said. “What has happened to me?”

Standing there, in the center of the room, it was as if she had come on stage to find herself in an unfamiliar play. She was, above all else, a performer, and to find that she had got the performance wrong was deeply disquieting.

I really liked The Very Dead of Winter are great deal. Not only for its wry humour and psychological insight, but also for some lovely descriptions. It’s not a flawless novel, there are a few instances of shifty point of view, but that didn’t diminish the experience one bit. I’ll certainly read more of Mary Hocking, might even re-read The Very Dead of Winter.

I leave you with two final quotes, one from the beginning of the novel, the other can be found towards the end:

The beginning of the journey had been enchanting. Porcelain blue sky and the sparkling white canopy transformed dingy streets into fantasies of unimaginable purity and, passing out of town, they came to broad fields where sunlight reflected the trellis of branches like veins across the snow.

She stood there a long time while the shadows crept towards her, deeps of blue from which a tree stump rose like the funnel of a sunken steamer. On the other side of the hedge, and between the bars of the gate, the sharpness of outline blurred into a mist of pink and grey shot through here and there with a shee of palest turquoise.

Literature and War Readalong September 30 2013: There’s No Home by Alexander Baron

There Is No Time

I discovered Alexander Baron’s There’s No Home  thanks to Guy who read an article about this forgotten author a while back.

Reading the beginning of the afterword I’m astonished he was forgotten. John L. Williams writes the following.

Alexander Baron was, arguably, the great British novelist of the Second World War, and for a while he was also the most popular. The three books in which he covered the conflict  –There’s No Home, From the City, From the Plough, and The Human Kind– received glowing reviews and sold in vast numbers on their first appearance on the bookstands and in book club editions.

That these titles have receded from view, rather than becoming established classics – on a par with, say, the wartime books of Evelyn Waugh, Graham Green e or Olivia Manning – seems as mysterious as it is unjust. Perhaps it is due with Baron’s concern with the infantryman’s point of view, rather than the officer class. Or perhaps it is that Baron’s style is so effortlessly simple and unsensational that it is easy to overlook the virtuosity of the writing.

This certainly puts me in the mood to pick up the book and discover this author for myself.

Here are the first sentences

This is not a story of war but of one of those brief interludes in war when the almost-forgotten rhythms of normal living are permitted to emerge again, and when it seeps back into the consciousness of human b wings – painfully, sometimes heartbreakingly – that they are, after all human.


The discussion starts on Monday, 30 September 2013.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2013, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Ruth Rendell: The Tree of Hands (1984)

Once, when Benet was about fourteen, she and her mother had been alone in a train carriage and Mopsa had tried to stab her with a carving knife. It was some time since Benet had seen her mad mother. So when Mopsa arrived at the airport, looking drab and colourless in a dowdy grey suit, Benet tried not to hate her. But the tragic death of a child begins a chain of deception, kidnap and murder. Domestic dramas exploding into deaths and murders …threads are drawn tightly together in a lethal last pattern.

I read and reviewed A Judgment in Stone last year and have mentioned how much I liked it. It was one of my favourite reads of 2010. On one of the comment thread’s Guy Savage suggested another book by Ruth Rendell, The Tree of Hands, and that is how I discovered this novel.

I have to emphasize once more what a great writer Ruth Rendell is. This book is different from A Judgment in Stone but also very engrossing. After having read The Tree of Hands I can also see why A Kind of Intimacy was compared to Rendell’s books. The description of the streets and their inhabitants shows a lot of parallels plus the people are equally deranged.

In the Tree of Hands the stories of at least 6 people are interwoven but it is skillfully done and they are all linked together in a logical way. The novel works like those rows of domino stones that have been set up in order to see them fall one by one. The falling down of the first stone makes the others follow. One action in the novel triggers another action and they are all equally fatal and catastrophic.

I was a bit wary at the beginning as Mopsa, Benet’s mother, is said to have a mental illness. Using mental illness as an explanation for a crime is often insufferable to me. But fortunately Mopsa is just the first domino stone. Being totally irresponsible she steals a child without ever thinking of the consequences but then she leaves and lets all the other people deal with the aftermath of his kidnapping.

The book really has a chain reaction at its core and one bad decision leads to another. And it also describes quite a lot of negative, selfish and frankly bad people. What struck me, even though Mopsa is mentally ill and on top of that clearly not a good person, she is by far less deranged than some of the other nasty characters in this book.

One of the main stories is the story of Benet, a young mother and extremely successful writer who lives in a beautiful house in Hampstead. At the beginning of the book her mentally ill and very unstable mother, Mopsa, comes to visit her and her little boy, James. Benet is a very loving mother and James is the most important person in her live.

The second main story revolves around another young mother, Carol, her son Jason and her young boyfriend Barry. Carol is a superficial and unrestrained woman with a flaming temper. At the age of 28 she is already a widow and has three children from different men. Two have been taken away, only the smallest, Jason, is living with her and Barry.

At first the two strands of the story run in parallel until a tragedy happens and Mopsa steals Jason.

I am tempted to write a lot more as there are a few aspects that I find interesting but unfortunately it isn’t possible, it would spoil too much. I can however say that the novel also explores the concept of parenthood and if someone who loves a child dearly might not be a better parent than a biological parent.

Something that struck me in this book is the overuse of the sedative Valium. This dates the book. Surely nowadays people in novels don’t pop pills like sweets and they might not use benzodiazepines as often anymore. This constant use of downers and alcohol is of course symbolical and just underlines that the people in the novel do not want to face any problems or consequences of their actions.

Ruth Rendell’s writing is suspenseful, her characterizations are psychologically plausible and the descriptions of different social milieus spot-on. Do I have to mention that I will certainly read another Ruth Rendell or Barbara Vine very soon?

Meg Rosoff: What I Was (2007) A Very Poetical Novel

The narrator of Carnegie Medal winner Rosoff’s latest and perhaps most perfect novel is a 16-year-old boy who has been expelled from two boarding schools and finds himself dumped in a third, near the Suffolk coast. The school is all arbitrary rules, pretentious tradition and routine bullying. But on the beach nearby the boy finds a fisherman’s hut occupied by beautiful, competent Finn, who is everything he wishes he could be himself: athletic, self-sufficient, able, free. The relationship that follows becomes an escape and an obsession, pure and transporting, and a turning point in a life remembered by the narrator at the age of 100. It makes us fall in love not only with Finn but also with the Suffolk coast, the land, the sky and the sea passionately described in airy and crystalline prose. It’s already a classic.

I wasn’t aware that I was reading a YA novel when I started Meg Rosoff’s hauntingly beautiful novel What I Was. It tells the story of a teenage boy but apart from that I don’t see why it is classified as YA. It is very lyrical, poetical and even mysterious. Rosoff creates a wonderful world, her descriptions are very atmospheric.

The novel takes place in 1962. Hilary is an old man now and looks back on his time at St. Oswalds boarding school.  It is the third school in a very short time. He doesn’t really fit in, he hates the place, he doesn’t like the people. The description  of the place had an almost gothic feel.

When Hilary meets Finn, his life changes. What follows is one of the most subtle descriptions and meditations on falling in love. Rosoff manages to show the complexity of the feeling in a masterful way. Don’t we always wish to a certain extent to be like the one we fall in love with? Isn’t the one we love not often an idealized version of our selves, a better part of ourself?

Finn lives all alone in a little fisherman’s hut, near the sea. His sole companion is his little grey cat. Finn is independent, strong, adept at many things. He is everything that Hilary is not. And very beautiful. Hilary is touched by Finn’s beauty in a very profound and even painful way. He compares himself and thinks that this is how he would like to look, how he would like to be. There is also a great transformative power in this kind of love. Through his feelings Hilary becomes every day a little more like Finn.

The fisherman’s hut is located in a very precarious position, threatened to be flooded at all times. Storms are a great danger to it. But it is also a very cozy little hut. Finn has a fire going all the time, he makes tea for them, cooks dinner. Finn likes to read and is interested in history. Through him Hilary discovers a lot he didn’t know.

The description of the landscape and the weather has also a very gothic feel. The sea is wild and seems to devour the land, the winds are howling, the storm is raging. At times I felt reminded of Jonathan Coe’s The House of Sleep, one of my all-time favourites. And once you know the story has a twist, even more so. I wasn’t surprised by the twist, I thought it was pretty obvious from the start but that didn’t dampen the reading experience. I truly liked this book and might very well pick up another one of her novels soon.

Has anyone read this one or another one of her books?

Should anyone want to know more about Meg Rosoff here is her website and blog.