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66 of 76 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An essay on grief..., 4 April 2013
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This review is from: Levels of Life (Hardcover)
In this short book, Barnes gives an intimate picture of his on-going grief over the death of his wife in 2008. It is not easy reading as it touches on aspects of grief that most of us will have faced at some time and will either still be going through or will with luck have moved on from. He starts with a contemplation of ballooning as a metaphor for love raising us to a higher level, but the bulk of the book is about how he has lived with his grief, including his musings on whether he would or will commit suicide.

I would prefer not to give this a 'star-rating' as it surely cannot be defined as 'I love it', 'It's OK' etc., but Amazon's review system doesn't allow for the unrated or unrateable. It is undoubtedly skilfully written and moving in parts. It is, and I'm sorry to say it, also self-indulgent - while accepting that other people have undoubtedly undergone grief, Barnes writes as if he is the first to truly experience and understand it. It also seemed strange that this man in his sixties writes as if he is encountering grief for the first time in his life. I suspect he is subtly making a case for the grief of an uxorious husband (he uses the word uxorious himself, several times) being greater than other griefs.

I would, I suspect, have found this deeply moving had it been a letter from a close friend, but its intimacy is too intense - it left me with an uncomfortable sense of voyeurism. He criticises, in ways that I'm sure would enable them to recognise themselves, his friends' attempts to console him with clichéd expressions of condolence and encouragement. Have we not all felt that? But have we not all understood the genuine warmth behind these clichés and forgiven the clumsiness? Indeed, have we not all been as clumsy when the situation was reversed? But I think it is his musing on the possibility of his own suicide, a future he does not wholly rule out, that left me feeling I had read a private letter addressed to someone else.

We will all react differently to this book and for some it may provide comfort to know that the feelings we feel are not unique to us. I wish I could have written an uncritical review of this - I considered not posting a review at all, but it seems to me that some people will be misled by the publisher's blurb, as I was, and find themselves reading not a novel about 'ballooning, photography, love and grief' but an essay on Barnes' personal road through his own grief - a road it seems he is still travelling.
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Showing 1-7 of 7 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 5 Apr 2013, 10:28:45 BST
Totally agree with your comments about grief, review stars and voyeurism - I shared your sense of discomfort, especially when he skilfully skewered someone's clumsy attempts to be consoling or distracting to him in his sadness....

In reply to an earlier post on 5 Apr 2013, 14:55:39 BST
FictionFan says:
Thanks for the comment, Emma. This may have been an exercise in catharsis for Barnes and I hope it may have helped him finally to move on five years after his loss (another word he objects to) but it's not a book I would recommend to anyone who is trying to deal with grief in their own life. For most people, there is the prospect of recovery from grief and I'd hate a newly bereaved person to be left feeling that the future will be, or worse, should be, as bleak as Barnes portrays it.

In reply to an earlier post on 5 Apr 2013, 18:03:15 BST
I have a friend who continues to maintain that nobody at all can possibly understand how bad it was for her to lose her husband. (Despite having lost both parents, etc.) The question then: is JB's grief actually just worse than most other people's - as my friend I think would argue in her own case? And was his love for his wife actually more? As I finished the book I felt that possibly he did actually love her more, in almost a different category or order of magnitude, than most people love their spouses....

In reply to an earlier post on 19 Apr 2013, 16:49:29 BST
Last edited by the author on 22 Apr 2013, 08:17:03 BST
Andrew Banks says:
I think the original review made some valid points. 'Levels of Life' is certainly well written, and it is a very interesting book, but I did feel that Mr Barnes was overly harsh on his friends in their reactions to his grief.

In reply to an earlier post on 27 Dec 2013, 06:59:16 GMT
Gerard P. says:
But perhaps you missed Barnes' irony? The author knows, of course he does, that there is nothing that is RIGHT to be said under the circumstances: in reflecting the helplessness of others, he is mirroring his own helplessness.

And as for some of the other comments above: might it not be ridiculous to try to rate 'degrees of belief' - rather like reading off the altimeter in a balloon? Who suffers most, when, where, how? Why? There is only one correct answer, and it is always an individual one. Not everyone loves as much as Barnes did and of course few of us have the writer's means to express that grief.

Is that self-indulgent? Good, heavens, what a strange comment to make. No one is forced to buy this book - or read it. Barnes is expressing his grief and it is up to the reader to take it or leave it. True, it is painfully intimate - unusual for Barnes, by the way.

In reply to an earlier post on 29 Dec 2013, 17:24:58 GMT
FictionFan says:
And what a strange comment to leave. You seem to be suggesting that Barnes is free to express his views, but I should not express mine. Perhaps it would be better if you concentrated on reviewing the book rather than reviewing the reviews.

In reply to an earlier post on 30 Dec 2013, 05:17:10 GMT
Gerard P. says:
But the point is, FictionFan, that in stating that 'this might have been an exercise in cartharsis', you are in my view crossing a thin red line and commenting on the man himself, imputing motive or whatever to him that you cannot really know, can you? So I mirror your own comment and send it back to you: maybe you should concentrate on reviewing the book and not on reviewing the author of the book?
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Location: Kirkintilloch, Scotland

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