Nothing to be Frightened of by Julian Barnes

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Nothing to be Frightened of by Julian Barnes

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: It's not the autobiography but it is autobiographical with Barnes' reminiscences about his grandparents, parents and brother along with his thoughts on mortality and religion. You'll be interested, absorbed and engaged but you won't be uplifted. Recommended
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: March 2009
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099523741

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Julian Barnes' memoir is a brief family history with a look at his grandparents, parents and his brother, but the real substance of the book is in his thoughts on mortality and religion. He says that this is not my autobiography and whilst it might not be the definitive work it is certainly autobiographical and it's Barnes himself who emerges most vividly from the book. The rest are names, sometimes just initials or a set of facts, but rarely do they have personality.

It's hard to know which of Julian Barnes' parents I liked, or disliked more. On the face of it his father should appeal as he was a stylish man and a raconteur but he degenerated into a morose silence, dominated by his wife and there seemed to be little emotion – even contact – between him and his son. On the other hand his mother was more immediately dislikeable but there were occasions when you had to respect, even admire her spirit. When Barnes visited her in hospital towards the end of her life he was intending to pass on the bad news from the consultant as gently as possible. As she saw him approaching the bed she held out her arm with the thumb down in a defiant gesture.

It's almost certainly from his mother that Barnes inherited his talent for the bon mot. Julian's brother, Jonathan, is a philosopher and she dismissed them both with the immortal phrase One of my sons writes books I can read but can't understand and the other writes books I can understand but can't read. It's easy to see why Barnes has spent most of his life trying to escape his genetic inheritance and failing to do so.

If Barnes' parents were somewhat distant it's reflected in his own treatment of people in the book. None stepped off the page, but in contrast inanimate objects had life breathed into them. His parents had a leather pouf and it was stuffed with their torn-up love letters. When it was beyond use in the house it was left at the bottom of the garden to disintegrate, with Barnes occasionally adding a kick to help the process. He felt more kindly about some of his parents' possessions when their home was being cleared. Ornaments, glasses are considered now, here for the last time, something that had been chosen, then lived with, wiped, dusted, polished, repaired, loved.

I found him most depressing on the subjects of old age and death. We are of an age and I know that much of what he has to say is unfortunately true. Like him I have no belief in a God but I understood his opening sentence. I don't believe in God, but I miss him. Recently I read The Second Plane where Amis argues that the opposite of belief is not lack of belief but independence of mind. Logically I don't dispute this but just occasionally it would be pleasant to have something on which to rely, but like Barnes I abhor the idea of creating a god to suit my own purposes.

I hesitate to say that I enjoyed the book. I found it interesting, absorbing and engaging but I didn't find it uplifting and although I was glad to have read it I was equally pleased to have finished it.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy of the book to The Bookbag. We also have a review of The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes.

If this book appeals to you then you might also enjoy Untold Stories by Alan Bennett.

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Buy Nothing to be Frightened of by Julian Barnes at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Nothing to be Frightened of by Julian Barnes at


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Magda said:

I dare say I would probably like it, I like Barnes a lot and I share the attitude to religion.