three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
38-Jan-Feb-2009
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0
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A-Nothing to Be Frightened OfThree of Julian Barnes’s novels have been short-listed for Britain’s Man Booker Prize: Flaubert’s Parrot; England, England; and Arthur & George ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection Mar/Apr 2006). He has also written crime fiction under the name Dan Kavanagh.

The Topic: Novelist Julian Barnes is afraid of death. Not only does he fret about what will happen to him (or not) after his demise; he also struggles with nightly dreams over gruesome ways in which it could happen. For some, the prospect of death leads to an embrace of religion, but over the course of his life, Barnes has only moved from atheist to agnostic and is determined to go no further. Drawing on memories of his family (including a philosopher-professor brother who calls his questions about death "soppy") and the ideas of the writers he admires (mostly French), Barnes does his best to come to terms with death without a deity.
Knopf. 256 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0307269639

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Why should an agnostic fear death who has no faith in an afterlife? How can you be frightened of Nothing? On this simple question Barnes has hung an elegant memoir and meditation, a deep seismic tremor of a book that keeps rumbling and grumbling in the mind for weeks thereafter." Garrison Keillor

Philadelphia Inquirer 4 of 5 Stars
"Its ostensibly grim subject notwithstanding, it is quite entertaining, studded with quotable lines. … It’s a delicious mix of personal reminiscence, family history, literary criticism … and philosophical speculation." Frank Wilson

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"Just try to put this memoir down after reading its intriguing opening line: ‘I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.’ … The scholarly text meanders skillfully through the author’s unique family relationships, astute life observations quoted from French writers, scientists and theologians, and ponderous thoughts on his fear of death." Verna Noel Jones

Boston Globe 3 of 5 Stars
"[Barnes] constructs a many-leveled scaffolding of argument, memoir, literary reference, and musings all around the dark pit. He doesn’t quite convince us he is staring into it. … Journeys, not destinations, interest him; the journey here is rather long and tends to drift." Richard Eder

Los Angeles Times 2 of 5 Stars
"Barnes is a masterly novelist, at his best able to summon up characters of all ages and types. But here he emerges as a chilly and tentative character, emotionally challenged and technically hobbled." Martin Rubin

Critical Summary

Most critics strongly recommended Julian Barnes’s reflections on mortality. However, perhaps reluctant to embrace his disbelief, they seemed more impressed by his descriptive skill in depicting his family—in particular, his emotionally remote brother—even though a few critics cited the author himself as emotionally closed in his personal writing. Reviewers also praised the scope of Barnes’s literary erudition more than any actual insight into the subject of death. A few reviewers felt that this dance around the subject makes Nothing to Be Frightened Of weaker than Barnes’s other books. But most embraced the book’s novelistic ambiguity, enjoying the story even if the author himself does not know how it will end.