Picks and Pans Review: Staring at the Sun

updated 05/04/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/04/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Julian Barnes

Daring and imaginative, this novel is so brilliant in parts that the few moments when it doesn't quite work are irrelevant. Barnes, the author of the much-praised Flaubert's Parrot, has created a character named Jean Serjeant, who grows up in England during World War II. She is perfectly ordinary—which may well be the point. Unremarkable people in a Barnes novel can lead lives of extraordinary richness and meaning. One of the most profound influences on her life is her quixotic Uncle Leslie, a ne'er-do-well who takes her along when he goes golfing and plays ridiculous tricks on her. Another is a fighter pilot who stays with the family. He tells Jean about the time when he watched the sun rise twice in the same day. Jean ultimately marries a policeman and then 20 years later finds herself pregnant and with enough courage to leave this man she doesn't love. She works in odd jobs, has a son and in her middle years travels to visit her own arbitrary list of the world's seven wonders. In the end of the book, Jean is 100 years old and living in the next century. Her son is 60 and flirts with the idea of suicide. The future, as described by Barnes, is bleak, but his marvelous character continues to surprise. This novel is spellbinding, and even if a lot-of it seems to be about death, it still manages to be never less than exhilarating. (Knopf, $15.95)

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