|Staring at the Sun by Julian Barnes|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Jill Murphy|
|Summary: The story of a centenarian's life? An existential search for truth and meaning? Who knows? In this welcome reissue of a 1986 novel, we can ponder Barnes's meanings at our leisure, whilst enjoying the prose, the ideas and the cleverness of it all.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 208||Date: November 2009|
Jean's first Incident involved Uncle Leslie, hyacinths and golf tees. It's perhaps best forgotten, but Jean doesn't forget. Uncle Leslie figures large in her life - mostly on the golf course - until the War comes and he runs away to America. He's replaced by Tommy Prosser, a grounded pilot who once saw the sun rise twice in one day and excites as many questions in Jean as he ever answers. Tommy is replaced by Michael, a policeman, whom Jean eventually marries. He doesn't know why minks are excessively tenacious of life and he doesn't much care. But Jean does. She cares much less for the Dutch cap that Michael sent her off to obtain before the wedding and much less again for their rather disastrous adventures in the bedroom.
It's not a match made in heaven, and it goes on for a long time.
Staring at the Sun follows Jean Sergeant from her days as a girl before WWII right up to her centenary years around 2020 - not so far off now, but the book was written in 1986. She's an arresting character - generally regarded by others as naive and simple, stupid even. But on the inside her thoughts are immensely fertile - full of wry humour, sophisticated understanding of herself and others, and intelligent, existential questions. Barnes's portrait of her is spellbinding, as are the cameos of the supporting cast: her depressive, fearful son Gregory; his angry girlfriend and Jean's brief Sapphic love interest, Rachel; Tommy Prosser the pilot, lost in the connection between courage and cowardice.
It's also a novel about fear and mortality. It begins with a sunrise and ends with a sunset, but the transition between the two is the central thing - what comes after? How do we make the time tell? Is a life worth anything? Is it all transient?
More than twenty years old, the latter part of the book suffers a tiny bit from some of Barnes's off-the-boil predictions about computers and Gregory's interactions with Barnes's version of Arthur C Clarke's HAL probably feel more of a parody to a real 21st century reader than the author intended. Or perhaps not - you never can tell with Barnes! Either way, I found the first half of Staring at the Sun, the part that concentrates on Jean, the most satisfying.
It's clever. It's beautifully written. It's sparse but complicated. It asks scary questions, but it feels calm and humane. Given a welcome rejacketing and new release here by Vintage, I don't think there will ever come a time when Staring at the Sun is not worth reading. Its themes are ageless.
My thanks to the nice people at Vintage for sending the book.
If mortality fascinates you, you might like to read her son's account of Susan Sontag's final illness and death Swimming in a Sea of Death by David Rieff. It's definitely no misery memoir. You might like to read Barnes's own non-fictional thoughts on death too: Nothing to be Frightened Of. If it's simpatico fiction you're after, Bookbag highly recommends On Borrowed Wings by Chandra Prasad.
You can read more book reviews or buy Staring at the Sun by Julian Barnes at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Staring at the Sun by Julian Barnes at Amazon.com.
Like to comment on this review?
Just send us an email and we'll put the best up on the site.