Booker Prize Finalist
"Wickedly funny." --The New York Times
Imagine an England where all the pubs are quaint, where the Windsors behave themselves (mostly), where the cliffs of Dover are actually white, and where Robin Hood and his merry men really are merry. This is precisely what visionary tycoon, Sir Jack Pitman, seeks to accomplish on the Isle of Wight, a "destination" where tourists can find replicas of Big Ben (half size), Princess Di's grave, and even Harrod's (conveniently located inside the tower of London).
Martha Cochrane, hired as one of Sir Jack's resident "no-people," ably assists him in realizing his dream. But when this land of make-believe gradually gets horribly and hilariously out of hand, Martha develops her own vision of the perfect England. Julian Barnes delights us with a novel that is at once a philosophical inquiry, a burst of mischief, and a moving elegy about authenticity and nationality.
The brilliantly playful author of Flaubert's Parrot and Cross Channel brings off a remarkable coup. He has imagined, with his customary wit, an England created especially for tourists, located on the Isle of Wight and equipped with all the essential elements of Englishness in their idealized form: Beefeaters, simple country policemen, village cricket matches, a Tower of London thoughtfully provided with a Harrod's store, reproductions of Robin Hood and his band, a Battle of Britain fought by period Spitfires every day, plenty of pubs and, of course, a miniature Buckingham Palace (the real king and queen have been put on salary and officiate at ceremonies as required). This is all the idea, and devising, of Sir Jack Pitman, one of those overwhelming robber barons of whom English novelists seem so fond. Heroine Martha Cochrane (who has been touchingly introduced in a brief opening chapter as a child) goes to work for him, and soon rises in his organization. Much of the book is a sparkling display of inventiveness as Barnes spoofs Englishry, big business and the fact that most tourists would sooner see an imitation in comfort than the real thing with some difficulty. Martha and her lover blackmail Sir Jack, who is caught in one of those bizarre sexual shenanigans that seem to appeal only to the English, and take over the ersatz England. Then the tables are turned, Martha is thrown out, and the book saunters into an exquisitely poignant coda that envisions a real England that has in effect withdrawn from the contemporary world to lovingly evoked rustic roots. The grace with which the novel's cynical laughter is made to shades into an emotion both dark and quiet is the product of writerly craft at a high pitch. Impossible to characterize adequately, but a rich pleasure on several very different levels, this surprising novel was a strong Booker candidate last year.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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April 09, 2000
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Excerpt from England, England by Julian Barnes
Pitman house had been true to the architectural principles of its time. Its tone was of secular power tempered by humanitarianism: glass and steel were softened by ash and beech; licks of eau-de-nil and acid yellow gave hints of controlled passion; in the vestibule a dusty-red Corb drum subverted the dominion of hard angles. The supernal atrium objectified the aspirations of this worldly cathedral; while passive ventilation and energy-saving showed its commitment to society and the environment. There was flexibility of spatial use and candid ductwork: according to the architectural team of Slater, Grayson & White, the building combined sophistication of means with transparency of intent. Harmony with nature was another key commitment: behind Pitman House was an area of specially-created wetland. Staff on the decking (hardwood from renewable sources) could eat their sandwiches while inspecting the transient birdlife of the Hertfordshire borders. ----------------The architects were accustomed to client intervention; but even they lost a little fluency when glossing Sir Jack Pitman's personal contribution to their design: the insertion at boardroom level of a double-cube office with moulded cornices, shagpile carpet, coal fires, standard lamps, flock wallpaper, oil paintings, curtainedfauxwindows and bobble-nosed light switches. As Sir Jack musingly proposed, 'Rightly though we glory in the capabilities of the present, the cost should not, I feel, be paid in disdain for the past.' Slater, Grayson & White had tried to point out that building the past was, alas, nowadays considerably more expensive than building the present or the future. Their client had deferred comment, and they were left to reflect that at least this sealed sub-baronial unit would probably be considered Sir Jack's personal folly rather than an element in their own design statement. As long as no-one congratulated them on its ironic post-post-modernism. ----------------Between the airy, whispering space created by the architects and the snug den demanded by Sir Jack lay a small office -- no more than a transitional tunnel -- known as the Quote Room. Here Sir Jack liked to keep visitors waiting until summoned by his PA. Sir Jack himself had been known to linger in the tunnel for more than a few moments while making the journey from outer office to inner sanctum. It was a simple, austere, underlit space. There were no magazines, and no TV monitors dispensing promo clips about the Pitman empire. Nor were there gaudily comfortable sofas covered with the hides of rare species. Instead, there was a single high-backed Jacobethan oak settle facing a spotlit slab. The visitor was encouraged, indeed obliged, to study what was chiselled in Times roman: JACK PITMAN is a big man in every sense of the word. Big in ambition, big in appetite, big in generosity. He is a man whom it takes a leap of the imagination fully to come to terms with. From small beginnings, he has risen like a meteor to great things. Entrepreneur, innovator, ideas man, arts patron, inner-city revitaliser. Less a captain of industry than a very admiral, Sir Jack is a man who walks with presidents yet is never afraid to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty. For all his fame and wealth, he is yet intensely private, a family man at heart. Imperious when necessary, and always forthright, Sir Jack is not a man to be trifled with; he suffers neither fools nor busybodies. Yet his compassion runs deep. Still restless and ambitious, Sir Jack makes the head spin with his energy, dazzles with his larger-than-life charm. ----------------These words, or most of them, had been written a few years previously by aTimesprofiler to whom Sir Jack had subsequently given brief employment. He had deleted references to his age, appearance and estimated wealth, had the whole thing pulled