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Discussion in 'Book club' started by peggylu, Jul 23, 2017.
TES is being naughty!
Oh dear, what happened with TES @Motherofchikkins ? Sounds like you've been having technical difficulties, as they say.
I agree with so much of what you've said about the book @Motherofchikkins
I felt like the protagonist was full of naval gazing angst way more than any normal adult of that age would indulge in. The whole set up didn't ring true for me either, and actually the mundanity of the various 'mysteries' quite irritated me by the end.
I agree with this completely, by this age and after a life filled with experience all Veronica's little hints and 'you never got it' whining was unrealistic. They probably would have really suited one another after all as they both ended up being quite childish, pathetic individuals as adults.
Ok, so we forget things we did or said (sometimes deliberately, sometimes through repression out of guilt or embarrassment) years ago, but these were such mundane things, blown up into some kind of personal sad mini drama that I found myself repeatedly asking, so what Tony, so what?
So he wrote a childish, vitriolic letter in a fit of jealousy. Are we really expected to believe that this can be solely blamed for causing Adrian to follow the order to run to speak to Veronica's mother, end up having an affair with her (or running off with her - I wasn't quite sure which) subsequently fathering Veronica's special needs brother and commit suicide. If that was Veronica's viewpoint of events then she was blaming the wrong guy, all Adrian's actions can't be placed at young Tony's door.
I don't think I actually liked a single character in the whole book. Most of them came across as self serving and selfish throughout.
I wondered if it could have been a lure to pique his curiosity, as it's such an odd thing to do, so that he would pursue and look at the diary.
Or, did even the mother lay the fact that she had an affair with Adrian at Tony's door and wanted to acknowledge her gratefulness, she did refer to their brief happiness together.
This also confused me, if Adrian was happy was it simply the birth of the child that changed things? Or was it the guilt and social stigma. Or...(more likely) was he just as much 'up himself' as Tony, Veronica and all the others and indulged his idea of glorious martyrdom in his own internal, naval gazing soap opera.
As @lanokia said earlier, Meh.
I'm out most of day today now, so might not get back on here to see what others thought of it, but I'll be around maybe tonight or tomorrow.
I'm hoping someone liked it, it was a Booker longlisted book I think, so maybe I'm missing something really deep and meaningful that others here got.
Well I shall give my thoughts...
I found it rather tedious and on further thinking, rather disturbing.
The writing was good, probably a bit more literary than I'm use to but that's the genre. As MoC said, the fact that we knew it was not going to unfold as Tony's account suggested, it meant I was only reading to find out what really happened that Tony didn't understand. The result was a book with zero reread value to me.
Tony was an introspective selfish character who only could see the world through his experience. While I accept this is normal for most people, it made for a difficult narrator to follow. Especially when we already knew that not everything had gone as Tony thought.
I had no clue about the Veronica character, none of her actions made any sense, I could get no handle on her motivations. Now this could be in part a result of the narrator being Tony, and Tony having no idea about her actions. If he didn't understand her then why should we as a result of reading his account. But still, by being left in a state of confusion as to her motives, it sapped some of the narrative power from the story.
About 1/4 the way in I realised I was reading the story of a side character. By the end I knew that the actual story, the dramatic story, had occurred elsewhere. The story of Adrian, Veronica and her mother... that was the dramatic meat. That Tony sent a spiteful letter in a fit of emotional pique? Not so much.
And here I kid you not... I had to read the wikipedia entry to understand the ''mystery''. The novel was so opaque [IMO] in the revelation that I couldn't discern it through the mists of literariness.
Felt a bit embarrassed at having to do that.
So what disturbed me? There was a tone to the book that the child born with special needs was as a punishment upon the ''main'' characters for their transgressions... and this is an idea that I don't like and makes me uncomfortable. It isn't explicitly stated in the text as such so I accept it's my reading.
Overall? Meh... a missed opportunity.
I had a similar reaction to everyone else. My conclusion was that sometimes they give prizes to people because they wrote other good books, rather than a particuarly good book initself. It was quite literary, as Motherofchickens said, so perhaps this was a factor too.
Anyway, as I said I would, last night I had a quick skip through to remind myself of the book before today. I found that the author sets out his stall quite early, in the main character's memories of school.
"He was essentially serious except when he was taking the ****"
"At morning prayers, he could be heard joining in the responses, while Alex and I merely mimed the words..."
"His mother had walked out years before, leaving his father to cope with Adrian and his sister."
"He said he loved his mother"
" It seems to me that there is -was- a chain of individual responsibilities, all of which were necessary, but not so long a chain that everybody can simply blame anyone esle"
"We need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us"
"Camus said that suicide was the only true philosophical question....The only true one. The fundamental one on which all others depend."
And, interestingly, in an exchange with Joe Hunt, the history teacher;
"But nothing can make up for the absence of Robson's testimony, sir." (The boy who took his life whilst they were at school.)
"In one way, no. But equally, historians have to treat a participant's own explanation of events with a certain scepticism. It is often the statement made with the eye to the future that is the most suspect."
"If you say so, sir."
"And mental states can often be inferred from actions. The tyrant rarely sends a handwritten note requesting the elimination of an enemy."
"If you say so, sir."
So we have a young, pretentious group of boys at school, when new boy Adrian arrives, turning out to be a quiet, deep thinker, their new philisopher, possibly religious, taking life quite seriously and apparently not needing anyone too much.
He commits suicide whilst he is a student, with no obvious explanation. The story is about the reasons for his suicide, which Tony, the main character, does not blame himself for initially, although he clearly has imagined it...it is a mystery to him.And yet he wrote a nasty, handwritten note...with unexpected consequences.
Even Adrian, in the one sheet of his own written testimony that we ever see, seems to imply that it all started with the letter...but then shares out any blame with his mathematical formulae that have Tony as only part of the equation. Unlike Veronica, who seems to blame everything on Tony.
And Tony's conclusion? Accumulation. Guilt. Unrest. Great unrest.
So it's like there are the bones of a great book here. But when your first reaction to a book is that you don't like it, you have to think why that is.
The first paragraph promises great things...I was hoping to have each memory dotted through the book, guiding us through the mystery. But no, most of them are explained quite early on, so they lost the impact that they could have. had.
Long, drawn out sequences of his non-meetings and meetings with Veronica are tiresome.
In fact, most of the females in this book are two dimensional. The best descriptions of people other than himself are of Adrian.
Tony is shut in, unemotional, yet you wonder does he want to find out about Adrian's suicide, or Veronica, really. A recognition of feelings that he didn't remember that he had for Veronica, (and, indeed, Adrian) with a subsequent emotional fight might have been more interesting to the reader.
But I think that maybe we are supposed to act like historians with an incomplete picture of events, Tony's dodgy memories and a few bits of paper, and are supposed to work it out on our own. As best we can. To prove Adrian right. To prove the dodginess of History. But it is very unsatisfactory. Possibly that is the point?
I read Arthur and George by Julian Barnes years ago. I thought it was awful and swore I would never read another book by him. I thought I would give this book a try for this book club. I thought that the some of the language was beautiful but couldn't get very interested in the plot or the characters. The bad driving bit with Veronica at the end especially wound me up! What was all that about? I would rather read a book about people surviving life on a tough council estate than this self indulgent, middle class stuff!
An excellent post... yes so many mysteries, like the suicide, just left out there, Adrian's character being so poorly fleshed out as to give us no insight.
Oh I know... I was left perplexed by that... I think it was that scene which began to crystalise my growing fear that nothing was going to make any real sense at the end.
I agree with what everyone has said so far. It seemed as if I was waiting and waiting for the book to 'get going' but it never did. Once finished my thought was 'Oh, is that it?' I enjoyed the first part much more than the second.
I think you have probably hit on the author's intent here, but for me there was no 'Sense of an Ending' at all. Too many unanswered questions.
For me, this was the sort of book that posh people think they should have out on their coffee table to demonstrate their intellectual credentials. I'm not a massive fan of prize winning books ('A Brief History of Seven Killings' by Marlon James being one exception - it was a genuinely brilliant page-turner) simply because the style of writing screams 'I AM WORTHY!' - I prefer something that shows the ability to draw interesting and believable characters, with a plot that I can actually follow and get into, personally. This struck me as a book that won a prize because the judges couldn't understand it and therefore assumed that it must be good.
It also struck me that there was no actual plot. I was constantly confused by references to things that didn't seem to mean anything. Was Adrian the 'hero' (it sure as heck wasn't Tony)? If so, why did he so selfishly abandon his new baby and girlfriend (it doesn't seem to have been a mental health issue or a breakdown...it seems as if he made a decision to bail, which I thought was distasteful - it seemed as if Adrian's suicide was a conscious 'eff you' to Tony rather than the consequence of anything else)? Why did Veronica even agree to meet Tony? Why, after a lifetime of selfishness and ease, does Tony decide to start following a random man around?
I kept reading because I desperately wanted to find out the Big Twist but it never came.
I enjoyed the first part of the book - the school experiences, his meeting with Veronica etc - and it made me think of those times in my own life. I'd also seen the trailer for the film so had a certain 'picture' in my mind of the characters. I read up to where he receives the copy of his letter and then didn't read the rest for a few days. At that point, it made me think how self-serving we can be, and how memory plays tricks with us particularly as we get older. When I read the rest of it I didn't understand Veronica's behaviour and to me, the immense anger that seems to come from her - the driving being part of that I thought. We take it that the baby Adrian is from a liaison with Veronica's mother, but could he have been Veronica's child?
Tony is the narrator so it is going to be mainly about him and what he feels has been a very average life. He did seem like a real character to me. Veronica on the other hand, seemed to be such a difficult person, although we learn about her via Tony and his interpretations. I didn't relate to her at all.
The letter itself was vile but would it really have had such repercussions? That didn't ring true to me.
It raised issues of memory, how our interpretations change, as well as how we view our lives once we are older. How we often don't recognise the damage we may have done to others. All issues that strike a chord with me currently, so in that respect I enjoyed it. I don't read much fiction as I usually struggle to finish a book, so that was also a plus point for me - I actually finished it.
I did have a quick look to see what was shortlisted in 2011 for the Man Booker Prize - The Sisters Brothers, read in my book group, nobody liked it. Snowdrops which I have on my shelf so may tackle that now. And some others I haven't heard of.
So many interesting comments and great posts. I think I’m enjoying reading the analysis and discussion of the book more than the book itself!
I too consider this the strongest part of the story. The author really captured some of the confusion of first relationships and wrote really well when describing the minutiae of the insecurities we all experience when young, but think ridiculous as we get older.
I think this is the main concept I took from the book and mused on after reading it, proving that most books, even ones we don’t especially enjoy, can leave us with something intrinsically worthwhile.
For me, this was the entire raison d'être of the novel. It made me reflect on some events and experiences from my own life and try to honestly examine my memories and interpretations of them as an older (hopefully wiser) person. I read a great non-fiction book once on the foibles of memory and this novel brought this to mind (sorry I can’t remember the title).
Basically, we are not very good at remembering details. The details of our memories tend to fade, even when the big picture remains. The details change to suit the patterns we think we remember. We remember the emotions of an event, the significance it has in our lives, and the meaning we attach to it. The little details then morph over time to enhance the emotion, significance, and meaning of our memory of the event. We often even make up new details to augment the memory. This seems to be the main theme of the book overall.
Excellent point here @lanokia , until I read this in your post I hadn’t realised the extent of my own unease with this disturbing connotation to the story.
Perhaps you have hit the nail on the head here and all our uneasy, uncomfortable, unsatisfied responses are what the author was trying to elicit all along.
(Do people still undertake such coffee table pretentiousness?).
Agree, agree and agree. The author appears to be trying too hard to be ‘worthy’ and perhaps he achieves this but, imo at the expense of effective narrative.
My overall feeling is, a good writer with an intriguing style but... as @lanokia says...
I agree with much that has been written here. I like the idea of unreliable narrator but here it made it so hard to work out the motivation of any of the characters - who were all pretty unpleasant and I began to wonder if I could rely on any of the narration as being a fair reflection of the events. In our U3A book group we had a good discussion trying to work out just how significant the letter was - was it what pushed Adrian into the affair, was that what the fragment of Adrian's diary entry meant? Also what was meant by the £500 legacy or "blood money" as the woman called it. Veronica's assertion that Tony "just didn't get it" was so irritating - could she not bring herself to be more explicit at all. Well, no obviously, but that really made it a frustrating read. When there is so much left unsaid you begin to wonder what the point is of reading the book. It certainly left the reader to do all the heavy lifting.
I really enjoy books with comfortable middle class settings as a rule. I did quite enjoy the read but thought he left us with too much to do - he's a bit "too clever by half" is Julian Barnes imo.
Ian McEwan often writes about similarly unpleasant, middle class characters and his books can occasionally have the same sense of self indulgence as this one. The difference is he tends to write stronger, more interesting and less contrived, convoluted plots.
My interpretation of the younger Adrian being in the story wasn't that his existence was a sort of punishment, but more that we don't always know what burdens people are carrying. Tony feels that his life has been average but OK. When he has the chance to re-connect with Veronica he is quite thrilled at that prospect but is then frustrated by her behaviour, imagining all sorts of things but not the reality. In a way I don't mind gaps, but it is frustrating when there are too many.
What he said
TBH, I liked the first part more. The other part - the affair that led to the 'child' was not very interesting, believable or realistic. Just unlikeable all around.
Did get the next one from the library and it seems more to my liking.
Oops! Reading November's now; still awaiting October's!
Tin Man by Sarah Winman now then.