Way back in 1983 I stumbled across Granta magazine in a bookshop in Newcastle. My utopian dream of one day owning a bookshop is modelled on this shop. It had a café in the basement, rare in those days, that served stottie cakes filled with dates and cream cheese and two floors of books above. My fantasy bookshop would have the café and the books but would also sell wool and haberdashery: that I have never stumbled across a retail outlet offering this mix puzzles me still. Back to Granta; this was the Best of Young British Novelists edition filled with examples of work from the twenty brightest young things on the British literary scene. Ten of them of accompanied me through my adult life. Looking at the previous publications page of THE NOISE OF TIME takes me to the public library in Nottingham where I borrowed FLAUBERT’S PARROT, to sailing round the Peloponnese accompanied by THE PORCUPINE, all history books have the subtitle in 9½ Chapters as far as I am concerned. In my mind’s eye I can see all the covers, one of the downsides of the Kindle that the cover no longer accompanies you everywhere you go. At the start of every Julian Barnes novel is the slight fear that this one might not be as wonderful as the others or, worse, sink into formula. So far that has never happened.
THE NOISE OF TIME starts with a man standing by a lift waiting to be taken away for questioning. He has chosen to stand and wait rather than be ripped from his bed in the night to avoid distressing his wife and children. Our hero is Shostakovich, the twentieth century Russian composer, whose professional life coincided with the Soviet era. We meet him on three occasions, shortly after his Opera was mocked and vilified by Stalin, attending a conference in New York and finally being chauffeur driven round the streets of Moscow. His ongoing conversation with Power is the central theme. Should he stand by his convictions and face the political music or bow to the demands of a fickle and vengeful regime? Fear dominates his life, even when Stalin is dead and the years of harshest control appear to be over, Power always makes it clear what it requires him to do and the consequences of non-compliance.
Julian Barnes has still not written a book that disappoints me. So realistic was portrayal of Shostakovich that at times I wondered if Mr Barnes had strayed from fiction and into history, so much so that at the end of the book I googled to find out what I had read was fact or fiction. Fiction it is but the sense of fear that seeped into every aspect of life under Soviet rule feels very real. My only sorrow is that the pages I turned were electronic and so I missed the company of the rather fine cover.
I was sent a PRC by NetGalley in return for an honest review.
Published by Jonathan Cape