Cecily's Reviews > Staring at the Sun

Staring at the Sun by Julian Barnes
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's review
May 08, 2012

liked it
bookshelves: miscellaneous-fiction, historical-20th-cent

Julian Barnes has certainly improved a bit in the last 25 years. I recently read his wonderful latest book, The Sense of an Ending (review here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), and for my second Barnes, turned to this, one of his earliest, from 1986. Both books document a long life, but the style is very different. There is a promising novel struggling to reveal itself here, but this isn't it.

It is the story of Jean, told in three parts: as a late teen on the cusp of marriage at the end of WW2, in middle age, and then approaching her 100th birthday in 2020. The first two are conventional enough, but the third is too concerned with theology (15 different arguments for and against the existence of God/gods), radical feminism, euthanasia and elderly care, philosophy, "big brother" and futurology. The points of debate echo issues in earlier sections, but it just doesn't work as a coherent narrative and the character development didn't ring true.

Jean is naive and not especially intelligent or well-educated, and as the story is told from her point of view, the first section in particular is told in a rather abrupt and simple style that I didn't find very enticing. Somehow, by the middle section, she is taking expensive long-haul holidays on her own - and with her teenage son's blessing.

The coverage of sex is both poignant (reminiscent of McEwan's On Chesil Beach (review here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...)) and comical - especially the excerpts of a coy sex manual and appointments with a family planning doctor who merely baffles Jean.

The descriptions of loneliness are well-done, too: "He had girlfriends, but he found, when he was with them, that he never felt quite what he was expected to feel: the inaccessibility of group pleasure, he discovered, could even extend to gatherings of two. Sex didn't make him feel lonely; but it didn't... make him feel particularly accompanied. As for male camaraderie, there often seemed something false about it. Groups of men got together because they feared complications.... they wanted certainty; they wanted definite rules. Look at monasteries. Look at pubs."

The final section was written almost before the internet, but spends a lot of time describing a cross between Wikipedia and Google, and people's relationship with it ("Sessions might turn you from a serious enquirer into a mere gape-mouthed browser."). It's cleverly prescient, though not totally accurate, which exacerbates the contrast between the this section and the more realistic earlier sections.

The recurring themes are fear and bravery: fear of flying, death, sex (McEwan), state snooping, and God, but they are light in the first part and overindulged in the final section. Related to that, there's a fair amount of running away, both literal and metaphorical.

Despite my criticisms, there are flashes of the wordsmith to come:

* "The word 'prostitute' sidled into her mind like a vamp through a door."
* "Phrases dropped from the page and stuck like burrs to her winceyette nightdress."
* "What puzzled her was how closely you could live beside someone without any sense of intimacy."
* "Market towns - the sort of places with a bus garage but no cathedral."
* "The hurricane, excreting the black smoke of its own obituary."
* "The presence of this forceful girl rendering him almost translucent."
* "The night's clouds oozed drizzle onto the car."
* "Anyway I don't think you're a... lesbian... her pause disinfecting the word, making it sound distant and theoretical."
* "a very old Electrolux shaver... so old-fashioned in design that it looked like something else, perhaps a sexual appliance of unpopular function."!
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
May 8, 2012 – Shelved
May 8, 2012 – Finished Reading
July 7, 2012 – Shelved as: miscellaneous-fiction
July 14, 2015 – Shelved as: historical-20th-cent

Comments (showing 1-14 of 14) (14 new)

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BrokenTune Great review Cecily! I remember enjoying the book very much, but it has been a over ten years since I read it, and thanks to your review I will put it on the re-read shelf.

message 2: by Steve (new)

Steve Better to go from fair to great than the other way around. I'm sure Barnes himself will appreciate being graded on improvement.

Cecily Steve wrote: "...I'm sure Barnes himself will appreciate being graded on improvement."

Gosh, did I sound that patronising? I guess I did, but I think the point is still true, and as you say, at least he's going in the right direction.

message 4: by Steve (new)

Steve I wouldn't have called it patronising, Cecily. I'd call it patronizing instead. ;-) No, you were fair and balanced.

Cecily Steve wrote: "I wouldn't have called it patronising, Cecily. I'd call it patronizing instead. ;-)"

Touché. The old -ise/-ize debate: clearcut for those in the US, more a matter of stylistic preference for those of us who use BrE. But I've given up on grammar groups!

message 6: by Steve (new)

Steve I always like the reminder that we have our slight differences. I also readily admit that Brits have the greater mastery of the language.

message 7: by Teresa (new)

Teresa Steve wrote: "Better to go from fair to great than the other way around. I'm sure Barnes himself will appreciate being graded on improvement."

I recommend staying away from his Before She Met Me, which is even earlier than this one.

message 8: by Steve (new)

Steve Good to know, Teresa. Thanks for the tip!

message 9: by Teresa (new)

Teresa Here's my review of it https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... if you want concrete evidence, Steve. ;)

Cecily Steve wrote: "I also readily admit that Brits have the greater mastery of the language."

That's very kind, Steve, but I'm not sure it's true (or quite how one would prove it either way).

Teresa, thanks for the warning!

message 11: by Steve (new)

Steve Cecily wrote: "That's very kind, Steve, but I'm not sure it's true (or quite how one would prove it either way)."

I think you're right, Cecily, that any assessment would be subjective. And it's possible that what to our American ears sounds like more intelligent discourse is simply a different set of words that are common in the British vocabulary. But I think there's more of an effort to choose words well in England. As evidence, when my daughter was 11 and spent half the school year in London, she'd never before had language instruction that was so detailed or writing assignments that came back with tips for improvement. At the English school it was emphasized.

message 12: by Cecily (last edited Aug 12, 2014 11:17PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Cecily That surprises me, Steve. I'm guessing your daughter was either at an independent (fee-paying) school, or over here pretty recently (or both).

In grammar groups (and I was in quite a lot, in different places), it was usual to find many from the USA who had been drilled in lots of very prescriptive grammar rules, many of which Brits (a self-selecting group who are interested in grammar) were barely aware of, or didn't think of as rigid. And that's why fights start...

message 13: by Steve (new)

Steve Perhaps this particular school, which was independent, was not representative. I think, too, that it wasn't so much the grammar rules as the exercises in precise word meanings, the structuring of sentences and the stylistic writing tips that were the difference.

As for the grammar wars, I'm sorry those ever occur and further that you might have been a casualty of one, Cecily.

Cecily It may well have been typical of indie schools (I have some knowledge of both sectors), and I'm glad it was a worthwhile experience for her.

As for the grammar wars, I learned a lot - including tolerance - but unfortunately not everyone does. No major harm done (at least, not by or to me).

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