Levels of Life

After winning the Man Booker Prize for The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes is back with the elegantly constructed Levels of Life, a deeply affecting meditation on grief at his wife's death.

"You put together two things that have not been put together before," Barnes writes in "The Sin of Height," the first of three connected sections. "And the world is changed." A brief history of 19th-century Anglo-French ballooning, and a pioneer of aerial photography, Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, are combined as metaphors for a new freedom as heady as first love--and as subject to a precipitate crash.

Two other balloon enthusiasts, Colonel Fred Burnaby of the Royal Horse Guards and the actress Sarah Bernhardt, are featured in "On the Level," a fictionalized account of a putative affair in which Sarah breaks Burnaby's heart. Then, in "The Loss of Depth," we go into the recesses of Barnes's grief. He and his wife had been traveling; they came home; she saw her doctor and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Thirty-seven days later, she was dead. The deep grief Barnes felt--and still feels--is meticulously rendered.  But "we did not make the clouds come in the first place, and have no power to disperse them," he concludes. "All that has happened is that from somewhere--or nowhere--an unexpected breeze has sprung up and we are in movement again." He will go on, diminished, saddened immensely by loss, but knowing that some good things remain. Chief among them must be his ability to render the most profound feelings in exquisite prose. --Valerie Ryan, Cannon Beach Book Company, Ore.

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