Monday, August 20, 2012
Review: Metroland by Julian Barnes
My readers may remember my glowing review of Barnes' brilliant A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, a book so hard to define when it comes to form and genre, it makes for a completely unique reading experience. On the other hand, there's Flaubert's Parrot, which is really Barnes' master thesis thinly disguised as a novel that everyone seemed to love and I couldn't get past the few first pages - though, in the spirit of full disclosure, I never really gave it a chance either.
So although I have great respect for the man, I don't approach Barnes' novels easily. In the case of Metroland, it is a mostly superb reading experience (and a relief in that). A coming-of-age novel about a boy, Christopher, from the suburb of London called Metroland, who with his best friend Toni escapes the monotony of home by reading French writers and philosophers is adorable and profound and grounded in a very realistic depiction of adolescence and young adulthood.
There are three parts of the book. The first, set in Metroland, finds the 16 y.o. characters dreaming of adulthood; the second finds the protagonist living it up in Paris during his college years; the third sees him back in Metroland, with a wife and a daughter. It is also this third part where the real conflict begins, with Toni feeling betrayed for Christopher's normative life choices while he is still obsessing about art and philosophy and being a free spirit.
Since there is no plot to speak of (and the novel is in fact a collection of vignettes), I guess the reader will naturally gravitate to their favorite section of the book based on the time period they cover. I myself enjoyed the adolescent part, but absolutely loved Christopher's years in Paris, where we read about his sexual awakening and first love(s). I also found the conflict between him and Toni surprisingly poignant and gripping, which gave the book an overall nostalgic, somewhat sad, feel. I could have gone without some of the cutesy, boys-will-be-boys type writing in the overlong first part, as well as some slightly homophobic comments, but all in all, I am very happy with Metroland - it is a really good, poignant novel, though it is definitely no History.
Trivia Bit #1 - There is a film adaptation of the book, starring Christian Bale, and it seems like a colossally bad idea. Naturally, I got my hands on a copy and will hopefully watch it soon and post about it.
Trivia Bit #2 - I am obsessed with the Russian cover of the book, because: a) it is obviously marketed as a YA novel, which it obviously isn't, and b) it features the English model and musician George Craig (of Burberry and One Night Only fame; he also dated Emma Watson) on the cover, for no apparent reason.