Mystery book: Levels of life

Author: Julian Barnes

This is an intriguing and powerfully written book with three parts – The sin of height, On the level and The loss of depth. In the first two, Julian recounts a brief history of air balloon flight before skilfully moving to discuss his experience of grief – following the death of his much loved wife. This may seem like a strange combination of content but as he himself says, “You put together two things that have not been put together before; and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”

This is a resounding ‘it works’.

Published by Vintage Books (Random House) in April 2014 this is a very different read to my usual choices but something I would definitely recommend if you are an adult looking to widen your reading or have enjoyed any other of Julian Barnes’ extensive back catalogue.

I bought this book from Waterstones, Manchester Deansgate, when they had a ‘Mystery book selection’ on display for valentines. The clue to the contents drew me in and felt like something different to my usual choices…

I had such an enormous TBR pile that I’d slipped this in between two others about half way down – and, as is often the way, I didn’t get near it until yesterday because, despite reading lots, I’m quite undisciplined with my TBR and prolifically buy more and more books reading those first!

Upon opening, this didn’t disappoint. My knowledge of non-children’s literature is limited (hence I’m trying to broaden my diet) and so I had not heard of Julian Barnes before, or the over twenty books he has written (one of which, The sense of an ending, won the Booker Prize in 2011). He has authored a range of novels, crime fiction (under a pen name), short story collections and non-fiction. After a quick Google search I found my mystery book is the latter – a memoir.

The first section – The sin of height – took me a few pages to get used to. It details the lives, passions and work of three people involved in aeronautics and balloon flight. Not what I would have chosen to read about (had I been asked) but I loved it. It’s fascinating and so expertly written.

The second section – On the level – builds on the first and follows the theme but, without the reader realising, Barnes has used the first 27 pages to skilfully weave threads together. You don’t notice this initially, until from page 31 he starts to pull and tease on the ends of these threads and a shape starts to appear. Ah, a love story. A wonderful, captivating and beautifully written love story. Not what the first section had led me to expect. But enjoyable – even if without a happy ending.

So then onto the third, and final, section – The loss of depth. And wow! If Barnes had been pulling and teasing the intertwined threads to create a shape through section two, from page 68 he violently yanks them to suddenly take on a very different form – grief. Oh. By the end of this book it feels he has laid himself, and grief of itself, bare. Exposed. Explored. Expertly told. “It hurts exactly as much as it is worth, so in a way one relishes the pain, I think.”

This is ultimately a powerful and honest book about grief. And love. “Because every love story is a potential grief story.” It feels like a very private window, looking into the innermost depths of the author’s soul and very being. A raw account of one person’s experiences of a deep and everlasting grief which can be read for pleasure (if that’s the right word) but also to learn. If you are navigating grief yourself or know someone who is – this could be a valuable insight.

While describing one of the balloon enthusiasts Barnes says, “He was… passionate and restless by nature… his gusts of energy and flames of hair seemed enough to lift a balloon into the air by themselves.” This book, with its passionate and restless nature is enough to lift the reader into the air by itself and when you come back down, you will be (ever so slightly) different.

“You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.”

Needless to say, I have already ordered another two of Barne’s books (novels this time) and can’t wait to read them.


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