This short novel was the book chosen by my book club this month. I am doubly thankful for this. Firstly because it is an excellent novel and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and secondly as it is a book which sticks in the mind and prompts many questions which will benefit from discussion in a book group.
The title both references Frank Kermode’s book of the same name and also the intention of this novella – to explore how we make sense of our lives and the stories we create for ourselves. The title may also humourously allude to the feelings the reader may have on finishing the story.
As we expect from Julian Barnes, it is well written – dialogues are believable and uplifting, difficult and weighty topics are handled with ease and often with genuine humour, emotions are conveyed with accuracy and empathy. There are few writers who handle the English language this well.
Not wishing to spoil the story it is difficult to give much information. It concerns itself with life, love and memory, with yearning and regret. However, it touches on many, many things, as it is reported in the novel :-
“The things Literature was all about: love, sex, morality, friendship, happiness, suffering, betrayal, adultery, good and evil, heroes and villains, guilt and innocence, ambition, power, justice, revolution, war, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, the individual against society, success and failure, murder, suicide, death, God. And barn owls.”
I can say, with some confidence, that had this book not been chosen by my Book Group I would have been very unlikely to have read it. However, I was glad it was chosen as I felt that there was a gap in my reading, in that I had not tried the work of Colm Toibin before.
He is clearly a writer of considerable skill. His output has been prodigious, in prose and in poetry, and generally highly regarded. Indeed, he was listed as on the the top 300 British intellectuals by The Observer newspaper.
While the novel did give me a glimpse of this ability it was overwhelmed by the negative feelings the book invokes. I read that Colm Toibin writes in quite austere conditions seated on a hard, uncomfortable chair. I can believe this as the discomfort and misery seems to have been channelled into this story. This is the story of Mary as an angry misanthrope. Discard any ideas you may have had of the saintly Mary, and ideas of Mary as the epitome of motherhood. This is Mary as a very earthly mother, a mother replete with faults and angry and exasperated by her son.
This mother doubts her son’s miracles, despises his followers (all ‘misfits, fools and stammerers’, men unable to look a woman in the eye) and hostile to those who she feels are glorifying his history. She has turned her back on him. In the past; by denying his divinity, in the present; by literally turning her back as she flees the hill and his crucifixion, and in the future; by attempting to confound the writers of the gospels. In the final pages she turns her back not only on the man but also becomes an apostate switching to a new life and faith with Artemis.
This book clearly intended to be controversial and iconoclastic. However, it is brief and without substance; there is no revelation in its attack, nothing new is uncovered, no alternative vision is offered. The only thing made clear is that the writer has problems with his Catholic heritage.
This is iconoclastic in the same way that drawing spectacles or black teeth on a picture of the Madonna would damage the icon. Iconoclastic but also a waste of time, to borrow a phrase “It is not worth it”.