Customer Review

30 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "perhaps, with luck, to France", 5 April 2013
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This review is from: Levels of Life (Hardcover)
We meet in this book a man who feels his life has been completely, irretrievably ruined by the loss of his wife. Though two interesting stories come before (about ballooning and Sarah Bernhardt) the main energy, soul, focus of the book is the last section, a grief-drenched piece of writing by her widower, describing what came after the death of Pat Kavanagh.

Barnes has always dedicated his books to his wife, and this one is no exception, and I found myself at times almost feeling envious of the extent of feeling he had for her. How lucky he was (and so also, how unlucky) to find someone he was able to love with such longevity and depth, feeling she was 'sexy', clever AND the ideal long-distance walking companion - there's not many that can say that.

Others have already remarked on the discomfort that attacks the reader as they glimpse the world of a mourner who cannot forgive clumsy, ill-thought ventures by others to say 'the right thing'. I thought this third section was brutally frank but also beautifully constructed - it doesn't have his prose's usual balance and wit, which isn't surprising given the subject matter, but it does have all its traditional power. He is able to capture so perfectly his own desire to watch unimportant football matches and his new addiction to opera, with all its dramatic, over-the-top emotions - suddenly making sense to a grieving husband.

The book repays re-reading. It ends with an odd sentence about escaping, 'perhaps with luck, to France'. This brings the whole book back to its beginning with the very earliest attempts to cross the channel in balloons. I loved this sense of completeness and circularity, in a book which seemed so ravaging at times. I loved how it connected with all his other writings and his passionate sense of France. (And I loved how it reminded me of standing on those clifftops by the Bleriot memorial looking back towards England!) It's by far his saddest book, but don't miss it.

PS To remind yourself that Pat was also lucky to have him, try afterwards reading Nothing To Be Frightened Of, one of the best, funniest, sweetest, most fantastic books about being afraid of dying / families / memory. A great counterbalance.

Update, 22 May
I just re-read this book, and on re-reading I noticed even more the connections between the different sections. On first go, the bareness of the grief in the final chapter is so raw that I ended up ignoring what a well-textured book it is overall (I see other readers here have been flummoxed by the same contrast). Second time around I saw how much the earlier sections emphasise lifting off, viewing the world from above, leaving earthly cares behind; I felt this clearly related to the ideas of the third section, about loss, suicide, death. And I was much more moved by the details of section 2: a tall Englishman meets a tiny, fine-boned, beautiful, Slav-eyed foreigner and falls completely in love with her, but cannot keep her with him.... His name is Mr 'Burnaby' - too close to Barnes! These first two sections now seem to me completely relevant, essential, and beautiful.
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