In Review

Novel of the week: Elizabeth Finch by Julian Barnes

Barnes’s latest may be ‘rather less fun’ than most of his books, but it ‘offers plenty to chew on’

Julian Barnes’s latest is that “old-fashioned thing, a novel of ideas”, said John Self in The Times. It is narrated by Neil, a former actor, but is really all about Elizabeth Finch, the “lecturer on a course on culture and civilisation that Neil took decades earlier”.

Finch, who is “probably inspired” by Barnes’s friend, the late novelist Anita Brookner, is remembered as an inspirational teacher, someone “who obliged us – simply by example – to seek and find within ourselves a centre of seriousness”. Neil recalls their sort-of friendship – they occasionally met for lunch – and describes his quest, in the present day, to find out more about Finch in the wake of her death. Very much a “thinky” novel, Elizabeth Finch may be “rather less fun” than most of Barnes’s books, but it “offers plenty to chew on”.

“Part of the challenge of rendering a brilliantly inspirational teacher is making them sufficiently brilliant and inspirational,” said Sameer Rahim in The Daily Telegraph. Despite Neil’s insistence on Finch’s originality, “what she actually says tends to fall flat”. “She told me that love is all there is. It’s the only thing that matters,” a classmate of Neil recalls.

The novel is further let down by its baffling middle section, which consists of Neil’s “stolid student essay” on the fourth century Roman emperor Julian the Apostate, whom Finch regarded as a kindred spirit, said Sam Byers in The Guardian.

It all adds up to a “work stubbornly determined to deny us its pleasures”. I disagree, said Peter Kemp in The Sunday Times. As a teacher, Finch “blazes with vividness”, and Neil’s essay is a “bravura exercise in nimbly handled erudition”. Elizabeth Finch “celebrates the cast of mind” – subtle, sceptical and ironic – that “Barnes most prizes”.

Jonathan Cape 192pp £16.99; The Week bookshop £13.99

Elizabeth Finch
The Week Bookshop

To order this title or any other book in print, visit theweekbookshop.co.uk, or speak to a bookseller on 020-3176 3835. Opening times: Monday to Saturday 9am-5.30pm and Sunday 10am-4pm.

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