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   England, England

England, England
by Julian Barnes

Category: Fiction / General
266 pages; ISBN: 0-330-37344-7

Rating: 6/10  (Ratings explained)
Reviewer: Dale


A complex novel which traces the life of a young woman involved in a project to set up a replica England on the Isle of Wight.

Julian Barnes sets himself the difficult task of telling two stories in one, the personal development of a woman, Martha Cochrane, from childhood to old age and the creation of a huge theme park on the Isle of Wight which sets the seal on England`s decline.

It begins very well with the first chapter describing Martha`s rural childhood which is suddenly blighted by the disappearance of her father. It is written with great sensitivity and perception and subtly introduces one of the main premises of the book - that we prefer to shape the past to suit rather than confront the raw reality.

Martha then disappears for a couple of chapters and we are introduced to Sir Jack Pitman a grotesque megalomaniac looking for a big idea to seal his place in history. This takes the form of creating a giant theme park on the Isle of Wight which will cater for every desire that brings visitors to England. Martha reappears as a consultant on the project.

The novel then acquires a political tone as Sir Jack plots independence from the mainland by devious means and for me at least comes unstuck. The major problem is simply that so much of the material seems old and tired. If Barnes is satirising the heritage industry he is merely following a long line of commentators from Robert Hewitson`s original attack in 1987. Sir Jack with his mid-European origins, bogus patriotism and army of sycophants is a dead ringer for Maxwell (died 1991). The political intrigues are straight out of Michael Dobbs and for good measure the story also takes in kinky sex, chequebook journalism and royal indiscretions. Occasional chapters chart the progress of Martha`s relationship with one of Sir Jack`s aides and provide some relief from the stale tale surrounding them.

In the final chapter Martha returns in old age to an England forced by the project`s success into becoming a rural backwater. Here there are at last some fresh and interesting (if unlikely) ideas but it goes on too long for an epilogue.

A sporadically interesting but ultimately unsatisfactory novel.


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