In the read

JOURNAL BOOKS

Nothing to Be Frightened Of
By Julian Barnes
Random House Canada
250 pp.

As a raving thanatophobic, I presumed Julian Barnes’ Nothing to be Frightened Of—a non-fictional, semi-autobiographical reflection on death and dying—would put me at ease: hey, great, there is nothing to be frightened of! What I didn’t realize was that the title is an incredibly morbid pun. Afraid (all-too-similarly, all-too-eerily afraid) of death himself, Barnes is particularly traumatized by the concept of “total annihilation” at the stopping of his heart; at this state of “nothing.” Having experienced the death of both his parents and, at age 62, nearing the euphemistic “winter” of his life, the writer and novelist takes some time to get solipsistic, reflecting on the deaths of his parents, grandparents, friends and those writers he calls his “unrelated family” (most notably, Jules Renard, yet another in the community of death-fearers he exposes and addresses in the novel.) Part memoir, part homage to Renard and part musing rant, the segmented, anecdotal nature of the 256-page book—named one of the 10 best books of 2008 by the New York Times, among other acknowledgements—goes unnoticed as each sliver of biography or autobiography is creatively linked to the one before it, effortlessly structuring the story to come.

At times incredibly touching, at others seemingly embittered—particularly with regards to the posthumous treatment of his mother; certainly “not what she would have wanted,” a phrase he questions in the book—Barnes delves into issues of mortality, humanity and theology without allowing the book’s lightness of voice to be bogged down by such dense philosophical topics. It also becomes an interesting examination of the act of writing, as Barnes questions how his own body of work will be remembered and illuminates his theories on the creation and role of the novel, appealing to a greater human consciousness and the idea that writers create fiction out of a desperate human desire for commemoration; some kind of immortality given the uncertainty of the afterlife in the traditional, religious sense.

Written with a dry, classically-British sense of humour bordering on (and, at times, crossing into) the erudite—the Oxford old boy with the philosophy professor brother seemingly can’t help himself from making obscure allusions and jokes—it is nonetheless the most uplifting look at sloughing the mortal coil to be published in recent years.

—Monica Heisey

The Pages
By Murray Bail
Harvil Secker
224 pp.

Trying to explain The Pages is like trying to explain the way something tastes, no matter how carefully the characters are described or how richly the scenery laid out, unless you’ve experienced it for yourself there will be something particular and textural missing.

I can’t help but think Murray Bail planned it to be that way. He layers the stories of his characters the way a top chef layers flavours, a careful artistry that is at once an examination of philosophy and the importance of tradition and loyalty.

Focusing primarily on two characters—Sophie, a philosophy professor from Sydney, and Wesley Antill, a would-be philosopher whose writing Sophie examines—The Pages moves back and forth between Sophie’s current situation and a retrospective look at what happened to Wesley that informed his prolific writings. Although Wesley Antill is dead during the real-time of the novel, his life is described in the present tense, making him as immediate a character as Sophie.

His first novel since the bestselling Eucalyptus, The Pages is deeply rooted in Bail’s native Australia. Although he sets parts of his novel in Europe, the Australian origins of his characters is never an afterthought; his country’s landscapes inform this story about friendship, intellect, self-realization and love—romantic, platonic and familial—on every level, making the novel explicitly about where it is set as well as who it is about.

Despite its peculiar and almost cryptic ending, The Pages is a surprisingly satisfying read. Bail’s greatest gift as a storyteller is handling the conclusions of his storylines, which almost always end with something unexpected that manages to not completely surprise you. His novel is not about expecting the unexpected, but rather about being open to it, a trick he carries both his characters and his readers toward at once.

—Angela Hickman

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