Book Review: Levels of Life by Julian Barnes



“Every
love story is a potential grief story.” Julian Barnes, Levels of Life.

Grief is a
tricky one. Levels of Life by Julian Barnes deals with it in a beautifully
poignant and thoughtful way that had me smiling through the sadness, touching
on his own grief and exploring the grief of others through fiction.

I am a
recent Julian Barnes convert. Having read The Sense of an Ending on my last
trip to France, reading another of his books on my recent trip to Germany
seemed like an apt thing to do. This book surprised me in ways I cannot
describe and I found myself reading every page on the edge of my seat, almost
begging for more when the last page turned. I am at a bit of a loss in
describing exactly how this book made me feel and what kind of effect it had on
me- but truly, it left me a little lost for words. In all the right ways.

Reviewing
this one adequately falls far outside of my capacity but a book like this
deserves to be documented as being worthy of a good read. The story is split
into three parts and combines grief with history, fiction and real life memoir.
We are introduced to
Felix Tournachon, a
balloonist and photographer in the first of three narratives, The Sin of
Height, and the story of how he was a pioneer in aeronautical photography. The love
he has for his wife lasts the entirety of her life and he loses his own not
long after her death. A lifetime of love.

We meet, in
the second episode, Fred Burnaby, also a balloonist, and follow his lust for
Sarah Bernhardt. We learn that his love for her is unrequited when suddenly,
after a positive start to their relationship, she appears at a social gathering
with a completely different man. Love is hard and doesn’t always go to plan and
grief is there to heal us when this happens.

“You
put together two people who have not been put together before; & sometimes
the world is changed, sometimes not. They may crash & burn, or burn &
crash. But sometimes, something new is made, and then the world is
changed.”

Needless to
say, it was the third part of the story, the true story of Julian Barnes’ own
loss of his wife, that had me the most hooked and invested. I have been quite
fortunate in my life, having only lost a few close friends and family over my
lifetime, but Barnes writes about grief in a way that makes sense and resonates
with me as a reader. Whilst I enjoyed the first two stories, I found it a
little difficult to understand where they were going, whilst I was reading
them. It was only upon completion of the book as a whole that I understood and
appreciated their inclusion.

I cannot
wait to delve deeper into Julian Barnes’ back catalogue because his prose does
beautiful things to my mind.

5/5.