Julian Barnes' Talking It Over: Book of a Lifetime
Natalie is a guest contributor for The Independent and writes. She was a guest contributor for The Times from 2006 - 2010. She has also written for The Guardian, The Observer, The Sunday Times, Sunday Telegraph and The Big Issue. She writes a monthly film column for The Reader's Digest magazine.
Thursday 20 February 2014
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)
BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital moveTV
Final Top Gear reviewTV
FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets
Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Tunisia hotel attack: Locals form 'human shield' to protect hotel from gunman Seifeddine Rezgui
- 2 Russian officials ban yoga because it's too much like a religious cult
- 3 German ethics council calls for incest between siblings to be legalised by Government
- 4 Ginger Pride festival to take place next summer, organisers say 'time of bullying gingers is over'
- 5 Facebook rainbow profile pictures likely being tracked by social network
Glastonbury 2015: The best bits you missed from Lionel Richie and the Dalai Lama to The Libertines' secret set
Glastonbury 2015: The picture of a man crowd surfing in a wheelchair is brilliant, but it wasn't taken at Glastonbury
Fifty Shades of Grey author EL James' Twitter Q&A didn't exactly go as planned
Guillaume Tell gang-rape scene causes uproar at the Royal Opera House
Glastonbury 2015: Shocking scenes of rubbish left strewn across campsite as clean-up begins
The moment a Queen's Guard soldier lost it and drew his gun at annoying tourist
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
Greece crisis: The wider lesson is that it’s time to abandon this failed experiment in currencies
'I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State' – David Cameron unleashes frustration at broadcaster
Pentagon accuses Russia of 'playing with fire' over nuclear threats towards Nato
They are neither a 'state' nor 'Islamic': Why we shouldn't call them Isis, Isil or IS