‘The Sense of an Ending’: Julian Barnes

Memory – a reward for having lived a life, having lived it with others, having lived it through events of varying consequences – how trustworthy is it? Sometimes we remember only a smell or a posture and forget the face, or when we meet a person on the street we remember the face - even after years - but cannot find a name to match it. But more often what we remember is only our own response to events, feelings of pleasure or distress without being able to recall the events themselves that had caused them. Tony Webster, the protagonist of the novel 'The Sense of an Ending', faces a similar predicament as he tries to reconstruct the past and has only his imperfect memory to assist him.

This short novella begins with four carefree schoolboys philosophizing earnestly on the meaning of existence, love and death. With time, they have to grow up and get on with living their lives, whether it fits into their philosophy or not. Tony Webster, who is one of the four boys, recalls events from his childhood, youth and later old age to provide a window to look at these occurrences. His biases and inaccuracies affect the stories conveyed to the reader making him an unreliable narrator. But in a paradoxical way he also comes through as very trustworthy and open, and we begin concerning ourselves with his well being. Then life throws a few curveballs at him and his friends, and the seemingly straightforward events take on an entirely different tone.

Time and memory couple tightly in this novella just like they do in real life. Time creates, distorts and erases memory while memory has its own way of twisting time. Communication is also an important theme in the novel. Sometimes a piece of communication is an occurrence in the background and sometimes it presents a cliffhanger.

Barnes’ writing is very beautiful and very lucid. A major chunk of the novel is peaceable, uneventful, without the thrust of a suspenseful plotline. The strength of his prose is that he makes this portion very enjoyable and makes you believe that an un-dramatic, modest way of living can be very satisfying too.
What left me slightly dissatisfied was the latter part of the novel. Here Barnes changes the pace of the narration and the suspense in the plotline takes the charge. I would have perhaps been happier with a more muted ending than the startling one that Barnes has presented.

I enjoyed reading this novel immensely. I was completely captured by the writing style and loved the subtle humor that Barnes so adroitly presents in unexpected places. I recommend this novel highly for the beauty and simplicity of its prose, and the depth and sensitivity of its theme.

Here’s the link to the Kindle download. It can also be bought from Flipkart in India.

Who watches the watchmen?

A rioter desperately inscribes this line on the wall while two masked super heroes close in on him. These are desperate times in a world weighed down by the shadow of a looming, nuclear third world war. Crime and destitution are on the rise. This is a time when the world needs super-heroes more than anything else. And there are heroes here, willing to watch over the helpless citizens to save them from the ills of a depraved society. They are the watchmen. But the common citizen has risen against them, against their saviors, preferring the regular cops for law enforcement. Why did this happen? These and a multitude of other questions are dealt with in this highly popular graphic novel ‘Watchmen’.

Alan Moore is the writer of Watchmen. One of the most famous graphic novelist from Britain, he is said to have brought the term ‘Graphic Novel’ into being. He has worked with artist Dave Gibbons to create this wonderfully complex and crisply rendered graphic novel. The art work in this novel is extraordinary, the compositions stunning and the illustrations very forceful. This is not a typical comic book, though the illustrations are in that style. The writing is of a rich literary quality which garnered a lot of respect. This also helped the move from a ‘comic books’ genre to the ‘graphic novel’ one.
‘Watchmen’ was originally published as a 12 issue series in 1986-87 and later as a collection. It received an overwhelming reception, gaining a cult like following and has held a spot in the world’s top graphic novels ever since. After reading this extraordinary novel it is easy to understand why this is the case.

‘Watchmen’ has its own original masked heroes: a ‘Nite Owl’ who can conjure up unimaginable gadgetry, ‘Ozymandias’ the smartest man on earth, the ‘Comedian’ who understands the world well enough to be able to laugh at it, a brutal and single minded ‘Rorschach’ who can’t stand evil, a beautiful female vigilante ‘Silk Spectre’, and a real ‘superhero’ with extraordinary powers born out of an atomic accident, ‘Dr Manhattan’. Each of them is socially misfit, haunted with personality disorders, fighting with himself and also the world. They feel a need to understand the darkness of the human mind, hoping to eliminate its root. Sometimes working together, but mostly alone, they dig into the murky trenches of crime. What they find at the end of their quest is of a most startling nature.

‘Watchmen’ has streaks of science fiction and psychological mystery. It plays with the psyche of the reader, delving into a grey area where it is difficult to discern the good from the evil, virtue from vice, cause from consequence. Time and space seem to warp in the human mind. And Dr. Manhattan for whom all the times exist at once admits unemotionally,
“The morality of my activities escapes me”

Watchmen was also made into a film of the same name in 2009
Watchmen can be bought from Flipkart and Landmark in India.

The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht

The Tiger’s Wife’ is this year’s Orange prize winner book. It is a debut novel by a very talented young author, Téa Obreht. She is the youngest to win the Orange Prize at 25. It is also this knowledge which makes me marvel at the maturity and intricacy of this incredible piece of work, for Téa Obreht discusses many difficult subjects here and very confidently at that.

This is a story of Natalia, a young doctor who travels across the (unspecified but most likely situated across countries in the Balkans) border to treat the orphans on the other side. This is also the story of her grandfather who was born in a very small and isolated (fictional) village called Galina and who also grew up to be a doctor. Galina is up in the mountains, gets snowed upon heavily in winter, and is infrequently visited by hunters, vagabonds and later by the armies. In one such winter the village receives a majestic guest in the form of the tiger - a tiger running away from the bombing in his city zoo, desperately trying to acclimatize to his newly thrust upon freedom. He survives on dead, bloated human bodies and at the same time longs for the company of living humans that he is used to. He does find company, love and friendship in the small village, but there is also the inevitable hatred. The unexpected relationship between humans and animals unhinges the sanity of the tiny village. The surreal encounters do not end for Natalia’s grandfather with his childhood, but haunt him again in his youth and old age when he repeatedly meets the mysterious 'deathless' man. Natalia herself walks into the surrealism of her grandfather’s life in her quest for understanding more about him and his past.

Both the storylines entwine in the narrative and give a face to war - its expectation, its actual arrival in fragmented disasters, and the hopelessness of its conclusion. The most striking depiction of the war comes not through the details of bombings and horrifying disasters, but through the routines of normal days which put forth the unreality of the war, and more strongly the cruelty and unfairness of it. Téa Obreht’s writing is very free-flowing and the narrative is engrossing. At times the novel gets into an oral story-telling like style with many small storylines interspersed with the main plot, some of which are quite engaging and some a little distracting.

The novel received many good reviews and also some criticism, which is to be expected I think after a novel wins a major prize. But these discussions apart, I would really like to recommend this book for it is a very fresh and entertaining read and also provides a glimpse into the exotic lands and customs of the Balkans.

I had downloaded this book from Amazon for my Kindle. It can also be bought from Flipkart or Landmark in India.

Longlist announced for the 'Man Booker Prize' for Fiction 2011

The 2011 Man Booker Prize for Fiction longlist came out last week. Just like every other year, this year’s longlist has also surprised, elated and disappointed many :) Heavy discussions will now ensue on the books that have missed the list and on those who made it.

In India the Booker Prize has become much well known after several of our authors brought the prestigious prize home. Aravind Adiga won it in 2008, and before him Kiran Desai (2006), Arundhati Roy (1997), and Salman Rushdie (1981) had won it.

This year’s longlist has quite a few debuts alongside veteran writers; also large publishing houses are slated alongside smaller ones. I like that the Booker, many times, brings to notice those books which you might miss otherwise, but which are meritorious nonetheless.

This year’s list does look quite sumptuous, and I hope to dig into it, reading at least a few before the shortlist is announced on 6 September. The winner is going to be named on 18 October. You can find more details on the Man Booker site.
  1. The Sense of an Ending - Julian Barnes [My review]
  2. On Canaan's Side - Sebastian Barry 
  3. Jamrach's Menagerie - Carol Birch [My review]
  4. The Sisters Brothers - Patrick deWitt
  5. Half Blood Blues - Esi Edugyan
  6. A Cupboard Full of Coats - Yvvette Edwards
  7. The Stranger's Child - Alan Hollinghurst
  8. Pigeon English - Stephen Kelman
  9. The Last Hundred Days - Patrick McGuinness
  10. Snowdrops - A.D. Miller
  11. Far to Go - Alison Pick
  12. The Testament of Jessie Lamb - Jane Rogers
  13. Derby Day - D.J. Taylor