It’s tempting to compare Julian Barnes’ latest book with his 1984 masterpiece, Flaubert’s Parrot. Both are told by lonely, highly-educated narrators past retirement age, both deal with romantic remorse from a position of confused helplessness, and both have a mystery at the heart of the story that slowly unravels.
They’re also both beautifully written, but then that’s something of a given. Each of his books features marvellous control of language and an exquisite sense of pacing – the latter of which is particularly important here.
Tony Webster and his two lifelong buddies meet the brilliant Adrian Finn in high school and become close friends. Yet things change for the quartet in their university days as distance takes its toll, while Webster has a brief relationship with the forthright Veronica Ford, who later takes up with Adrian – who commits suicide. A lifetime later, with a failed marriage behind him, Webster is remembered in the will of Veronica’s mother, mysteriously bequeathing him Adrian’s diary. And thus old wounds are opened, with the difference between the past we have and the past we remember laid out in near-surgical detail.
It’s a strange, slight story, given weight by exceptional writing, showing that a solid Barnes book is head and shoulders above the best efforts of most contemporary fiction writers.