‘I was born on 25th May, 1938, in the front bedroom of a house in Orton Road, a house on the outer edges of Raffles, a council estate. I was a lucky girl.’
So begins Margaret Forster’s journey through the houses she’s lived in, from that sparkling new council house, to her beloved London home of today. This is not a book about bricks and mortar though. This is a book about what houses are to us, the effect they have on the way we live our lives and the changing nature of our homes: from blacking grates and outside privies; to cities dominated by bedsits and lodgings; to the houses of today converted back into single dwellings. Finally, it is a gently insistent, personal inquiry into the meaning of home.
'Vinnie Miner, 54-year-old Anglophile professor, is in London on a six-month foundation grant. So is her young colleague, Fred Turner. Vinnie is plain and resignedly self-reliant; Fred is arrestingly handsome and moping after a breakup with his wife. Vinnie and Fred have love affairs in London. Fred's is a fraught liaison with a waitress while Vinnie drifts into a relationship with an engineer from Oklahoma she met on the plane, a brash uneducated stereotypical American who finally beguiles her (and the reader) with his uncomplicated goodness... I devoured the book at a sitting and then went back for a second dip at once' Penelope Lively, Sunday Telegraph
To Penelope Butler the family was all, the sole ambition of her adult life. Three of her four daughters, however, had different ideas. Rosemary rejected it; Jess was destroyed by it; Celia found it eluded her. Only Emily pursued her mother's ideal, with disastrous results.
Penelope begins to record their family story as it unfolds. But when Rosemary discovers these private papers she is enraged by her mother's distortions of the truth and proceeds to tell the story from her perspective. From D-Day on into the turbulent post-war years, a picture emerges not only of a single family in all its complexities, but also of the changing world that shaped their lives.
In these seventeen essays (and one short story) the 2011 Man Booker Prize winner examines British, French and American writers who have meant most to him, as well as the cross-currents and overlappings of their different cultures. From the deceptiveness of Penelope Fitzgerald to the directness of Hemingway, from Kipling's view of France to the French view of Kipling, from the many translations of Madame Bovary to the fabulations of Ford Madox Ford, from the National Treasure Status of George Orwell to the despair of Michel Houellebecq, Julian Barnes considers what fiction is, and what it can do. As he writes in his preface, 'Novels tell us the most truth about life: what it is, how we live it, what it might be for, how we enjoy and value it, and how we lose it.'
When his Letters from London came out in 1995, the Financial Times called him 'our best essayist'. This wise and deft collection confirms that judgment.