In retirement, Tony Webster receives a mysterious bequest from the mother of Veronica, the primly self-assured girl he went out with as an undergraduate. It includes an excerpt from his old school chum Adrian’s diary. Veronica had toyed with Tony, found him wanting and moved on to Adrian. Callow and bitter, Tony sent the new couple a poisonous letter that comes back to haunt him four decades later “like some ancient curse”.
Barnes scooped the 2011 Man Booker prize with this controversially slim work (for a prize that excludes novellas), whose substance forces a recalibration of memory and self-perception. It’s a bleak summation of a life built on a degree of vanity shored up over the years by a safely confined emotional range.
Tony’s comfortably proscribed inner life is deftly eviscerated by Barnes but he leaves opaque some degrees of personal responsibility. The result is an eloquent meditation on relationships, emotional arrogance and the discomfort of remorse.