Tony Webster is the narrator, he tells us about his school days, his three best friends at the time and his first real girlfriend, Veronica, who he met in university. He spends one weekend in Veronica's parents' place in
Surrey, where he thinks he is being patronised and
ridiculed by everyone except Veronica's mother. Eventually Tony and Veronica
split, Veronica starts going out with Tony's friend Adrian, who the group of
friends has always seen as the most intellectual, and the most idealistic of
them all. There is a suicide, and the group of friends drift apart, and get on
with their own lives.
Fast forward forty years, Tony has been married and divorced, he has lost contact with the people from his past, until he receives an unexpected bequest in Veronica's mother's will. From there he feels compelled to dig into what happened in his twenties, and re-connect with his old flame Veronica.
As could be expected from a novel about someone looking back to their youth from the vantage point of their sixties, the book is about memory, and the passing of time. As the narrator says at the beginning, "Time's malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down." Time seems to have passed quickly for Tony, he tells of the intervening forty years between his time with Veronica and his present in about two pages, it has been a life half-lived, with few details. We get the impression that he regrets not having done more with his life, he regrets his caution, his lack of drive.
There is a lot unsaid in Tony's narration, or at least a lot half-said. He is not quite an unreliable narrator, as he is not totally deluded, but he is at the very least ignorant about a lot of things, and makes many assumptions that are not borne out by the facts. He is, though, aware of this. At one stage he says, "when we are young we invent different futures for ourselves, when we are old we invent different pasts for others." And this is what Tony does. Even after retirement, when he tries to get back in touch with Veronica, he misinterprets everything about her responses to him, even holding out some vague hope of a rekindling of their relationship while all the time she has nothing but contempt for him. He is fundamentally clueless. Veronica herself tells him, more than once, "You just don't get it, do you?" And he doesn't.
The story builds towards a kind of climax, our uncertainty about what has happened in the past matches Tony's, until slowly the truth is revealed. It is a little like a kind of literary whodunnit whose final revelation is temporarily shocking, but which is not expanded on and not really developed. The ending, after so much mystery, is slightly anti-climatic, though this fits in with the theme of the book. What has happened has happened, there is no changing that, and the past is what it is and cannot be reformed or twisted or reshaped just by telling it in a different way.
The value of the novel lies in the journey towards the revelations at the end, and not in the twists themselves. It is a dense book, which would probably be worth re-reading, about someone whose life has disappointed him, though he is incapable of figuring out why, and who is prone to assuming things which are totally untrue. It won the Booker prize in 2011. I find it hard to say that the novel is prize-worthy, it seems too slight for that, but there is something interesting there in what at first seems like a very simple story. The complexity builds, layer after layer, until we have a very compact, tightly packed novel that draws you in and makes you want to know more.