Monthly Book Group's Reviews > Nothing to Be Frightened Of

Nothing to Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review
Jan 18, 2014

really liked it

The majority opinion was that of admiration – some grudging, some less so – for the cleverness of the book, mingled with substantial reservations about it. More specifically, there was admiration for the precision and concision of his language, in tandem with a chatty style. We liked the wealth of anecdotes and the breadth of ideas (from the latest scientific thinking about the nature of the brain, to quirky facts such as that your nails do not actually continue to grow after death). We liked the nimbleness of his mind, and the range of literary, artistic, and biographical reference. Some found the book funny (as in the anecdote of the man who hailed a passing hearse asking if it were free), while others found more irony, some of it rather bitter, than laugh-out-loud humour.

One major reservation for many was the length of the book, padded out with irrelevant anecdotes and repetition. “If a student gave me this,” one opined “I’d tell him to cut the length by at least half ”. Related to this was the chapterless lack of structure and proper conclusion. “If you cut the book up and threw it on the floor, you couldn’t put it back in order. Nor indeed would it matter what order you read it in.” “Barnes records” observed another, coldly putting the boot in, “that Oxford told him he did not have the right kind of mind to study philosophy. They were right. There’s enough that’s good in this to encourage me to read another Barnes’ novel, but not another rambling quasi-philosophical book like this. ”

Another reservation was that, in the process of resolutely knocking down every possible means of consoling himself about death, you felt that Barnes did not actually value anything in his godless world. He contrived to sound unenthusiastic about life in general, his interest in football (oh well, Leicester were doing badly then), about novel-writing, about relationships, about beauty, about the natural world, and even about his daily bottle of wine Not for him the spiritual dimension that many still find in a godless world. It was not that we found the book depressing; it was that Barnes seemed depressed. And his endless, abstract cleverness served finally to muffle the real horror of death.

The oddest thing about the book, the most energetic, and the one that had attracted most public attention, was the autobiographical material included about his family. It had an emotional charge which suggested unresolved conflicts. You could admire the novelist’s skill he brought to the descriptions of his family, and to imagining what might be the story of his grandfather’s war. You could also admire his honesty in examining and recording his own feelings. But – really – did he have to write so bitterly about his mother? Did he need to unburden himself in this way? What was the relevance to a book about death?

And where was the novelist’s capacity for empathy when he thought about his family? He excoriated his mother for a solipsistic view of the world, and then devoted reams to his own solipsistic worries about when readers would finally stop reading his books….

This is an extract from a review at Our reviews are also to be found at


Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Nothing to Be Frightened Of.
Sign In »

No comments have been added yet.