Written over 50 years apart, Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize winning The Sense Of An Ending followings the unravelling of Tony Webster’s memories as his buried past is jolted back into life by the arrival of a lawyer’s letter. Meanwhile, Leo, The Go-Between’s narrator, is taken back 52 years to the first summer of the 20th century when he discovers his 13 year-old self’s diary in a long-forgotten trunk.
Bookended by a prologue and epilogue, both set in Leo’s present, take us into the story (Hartley’s opening line, “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there”, is arguably more famous than the novel itself) and (sort of) tidies thing up at the end for us and for Leo.
The core of the novel is set in the first few months of the 20th century, a century that Leo is filled with confidence in, believing it to be the dawn of “a Golden Age”.
The century certainly starts off well for him, as he rises to prominence at his boarding school after a spell he writes in his diary directed at two bullies seems to work when they fall to their near-deaths from a roof. His black magic powers seem to continue when his desire for the term to end early comes true when the school is closed after a bout of chicken pox. As a result, he’s invited to stay at his friend Marcus’ grand family house in Norfolk for holidays.
Thrust into a world of Viscounts and strange customs (wearing slippers to breakfast is looked down upon as “something bank clerks do”), Leo becomes enthralled by Marcus’ beautiful sister Marian, who gently, although to an adult’s eye, somewhat maliciously, teases him and spoils him in equal measure. But his infatuation with her leads him into a dangerous game when, persuaded by her lover (who Leo also develops a fascination for) the farmer Ted Burgess, to carry letters between the pair, they are free to continue their clandestine love affair with catastrophic results.
The Go-Between is a wonderful read. Rich and multi-layered, Leo’s 12-year-old voice is so beautifully realised and the Edwardian world, that you, as a 21st century reader knows is about to collapse around their ears, is bought vividly to life. And I’m a sucker for a country house setting, with all its fading glamour and unfathomable to the outsider rituals.
The blazing sun of a glorious July is an omnipresent character; Leo becomes obsessed with the barometer gauge, desperate for the dial to hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Hartley uses the weather both as metaphor and as a way to bring life in the big house to life. I could feel the prickling of sweat on skin, the heat of the sun on your face, the refreshing sound of water as they swam. Suddenly this world wasn’t a million miles away from mine (although I did read in during a very soggy summer, so it did stretch my imagination).
The weather as metaphor is almost a clichéd literary device and in the hands of a lesser writer, could sound as limp as Golden Retriever in the heat. But in Hartley’s skilled hands, the oppressive heat and the symbolic thunderstorm that breaks on Leo’s last day at the Hall, sound as fresh as a day after a storm.