This, a short book in three parts, is as accomplished a work as you’d expect from a long-term, much-awarded novelist such as Julian Barnes. It’s a meditation on flight (ballooning, in particular), photography and grief, and while the first two sections of the book focus on historical figures’ experience of those areas, the final third is about Barnes’ own grief, over the death of his wife.
The first two sections, detailing loves and legs lost in the pursuit of amour and altitude – with a cast including Sarah Bernhardt, Fred Burnaby and Félix Tournachon – are well written but also somewhat disconnected from the final chapter. They fit together well enough, and the lack of a complete mesh is forgivable given that this is writing informed by deep grief, but sometimes the paths from start to end seem a little forced. The turn of phrase are still effortlessly polished; describing his wife’s illness as “37 days from diagnosis to death” is brilliantly economical, indicative of the rapidity with which death can make itself known. (more…)