I was 16 when Talking It Over came out, and I had never read anything except murder mysteries and books for school. I had a Saturday job at Hornby’s Bookshop in Birmingham, and when copies of the latest Julian Barnes novel arrived, they were accompanied by a large poster of the hardback cover, which we had no space to display.
I liked the picture so much, I stole the poster and bought the book. I was instantly beguiled by its clever, teasing structure. Three narrators – Stuart, Oliver, and Gillian – take turns to explain their evolving relationship to the reader. Stuart and Oliver are school-friends: Stuart the plodding carthorse, Oliver the glamorous underachiever. Both men fall in love with Gillian, an art restorer. It opens with a glorious dissection of a conversation between the three of them, about grammar.
Everything we need to know about these characters is revealed in a few moments of them arguing about whether “someone” should take a singular or plural pronoun. It’s a conversation which foreshadows everything that will happen to the three of them throughout the novel. I read it in one sitting, then tanked my week’s wages buying his other novels (I still think back fondly to that staff discount). I loved them all, but Talking It Over will always be the book which lured me into literary fiction, my gateway drug. There’s a dedicatory line at the start of the book: “He lies like an eye witness”. And that is the distilled tricksiness of this novel. One story, three participants, three accounts of the same events, each one banging into the others at times, when one character is particularly deluded or pig-headed.
And all of them addressing one reader, demanding that you build something like the truth out of it all. Oliver admits to only remembering important stuff. “What I remember is my business,” says Gillian, pushing the reader away. “I remember everything,” says Stuart. We have to piece things together for ourselves, always considering the particular type of unreliability each narrator possesses. I had no idea when I read it that I would one day want to steal this idea for my own novel (which has two narrators of the same events, neither of whom has complete insight into themselves or each other). Every time I found a moment when I wanted to make it clear to the reader that they shouldn’t trust everything they were reading, without making it clunkingly obvious, I thought of how elegantly Barnes had done it, and cursed quietly.
Natalie Haynes will appear at The Independent Bath Literature Festival (www.bathfestivals.org.uk) on Sunday 9 March to talk about her debut novel, ‘The Amber Fury’ (Corvus)