I finished this sometime last week, but I don’t quite know what to say about it. I guess it’s not at all like I expected, but then again, I didn’t have any clear expectation, since this is the first book by Mr. Barnes I’m reading. In a nutshell, I could say it felt oddly unsatisfying; like all the ingredients were there, but things just didn’t click. It’s a rather silly way of looking at things, but sometimes you just can’t place your finger on the sore spot.
It’s divided in 3 parts and it follows the fake biography of a Martha Cochrane – from a disappointing childhood, to her professional peak and all the way through to her final, settled years. Characters like Martha – a little bit wild, a little bit ambitious, but mostly cynical and disappointed – never seem to find inner peace before their twilight years, and it perpetuates the idea that age brings wisdom. I don’t really think they necessarily go together – age brings more experience, but it’s what you do with it really – what conclusions you draw from it that seem to count; and the one thing that most literary characters learn is that they should abandon all material ambition, because death could be at any corner. Well, you don’t really need to be 80 to know that…
But I got sidetracked.
Martha is hired as “the resident cynic” in Sir Jack Pitman’s ever expanding empire; her chief contribution being brought to a grand scale touristic project. The scope of said project is to turn the Isle of Wight into a chief attraction, by cramming in it copies of all that is considered “British”. After a survey which says that most people are more (or equally) satisfied seeing a copy of a particular landmark, and another survey which lists a top 50 of “All things British” (including, of course, the royal family, London taxis, Shakespeare, Stonehenge, bowler hats, cricket, Beefeater, marmalade and some sort of bird which is supposed to sit in the snow) the recreating begins. What can’t be built, will be bought (like the Royal family- some depraved descendants of the now dead Elizabeth II) and soon enough visitors start flooding in to see reenactments of the Battle for Britain, to see Robin Hood and his politically correct band of merry men, to have dinner with Samuel Johnson and to see all Britain crammed in 384 sq km.
Martha (and her lover, Paul) eventually become directors after they find out something about Sir Pitman (something to do with his rather odd sexual preferences), but the inevitable fall will come and Martha will end up an old spinster in the same village where she had grown up, in a now 3rd world poor Britain. England, England (the amusement park-like Isle of Wight) and Britain work like communication vessels – while tourism is flourishing in the first, the second is being run into the ground and slowly starts cutting all connections with the world and creating an artificial pastoral community – basically going full speed towards the 19th century. Martha’s return to this environment felt right even if totally to be expected and it kept a sort of narrative symmetry.
The premise of the book seems very entertaining, but its promise to mock is kept only so much. Of course it points out a lot of stuff that is wrong with our society, but it often seems to go to the lowest common denominator, a lot like the very subject of its mockery. In the end, it’s a farce and mixing it with a search for authenticity felt a bit out of sync.
As far as I could see, the critics’ ratings were quite mediocre, and the two review I’ve read (NYTimes, The Guardian) don’t stray too far from the general assessment. Perhaps it’s not one of Mr. Barnes best works, but I don’t really feel motivated to go and search for a better one.