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Susan’s Bookshelves: Elizabeth Finch by Julian Barnes

Of course I’ve read Julian Barnes before. I particularly remember enjoying Arthur & George in 2005 during a week in a gîte in Normandy with the extended family. The sun shone gloriously every day and Barnes and I spent a lot of time together under the awning outside the kitchen door. Do other people associate books with the place where they read them?

Elizabeth Finch (2022) is his latest and newly out in paperback so, for once, that’s how I read it rather than via Kindle. The eponymous Elizabeth is a lecturer in culture and civilisation  in whose adult class the narrator, Neil, finds himself when he’s in his thirties. She is inscrutable but fascinating and fearsomely intelligent.  She dresses with frumpy elegance and no one knows whether there has ever been any sort of private life.

In time Neil gets into the habit of having lunch with her once a month and when she dies she leaves him her books and papers. He has, by then, two failed marriages behind him and is dubbed “the king of unfinished projects” by his children. He simply doesn’t know what he should or could do with her archive.

What he eventually does relates to Julian the Apostate (you’ll learn a lot from this novel) and forms the central section of what is effectively a sort of literary triptych. The first and third sections form a narrative  framework for Neil’s one and only finished project. He tells us about his research, getting to know Elizabeth’s brother, and contacting a couple of people who were in the original class with him. In a sense it’s like a Picasso painting because, although it’s all filtered through Neil we get glimpses of Elizabeth from several other perspectives including the time she wrote something for which she was pilloried by the Daily Mirror, a story which got out of hand.


It’s an engagingly grown up, hugely well informed novel.  And as someone who has recently published a totally different sort of book about a (real) dead person – The Alzheimer’s Diaries, 2022 – I was stopped in my tracks by this passage:

“To please the dead. Naturally we honour the dead, but in honouring them, we somehow make them even more dead. But to please the dead, this brings them to life again. Does that make sense?”

Yes, Julian/Neil, it certainly does. Thank you.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood.



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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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