Review: Metroland by Julian Barnes

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Metroland by Julian Barnes book cover
Metroland (1980), an episodic coming-of-age story, is Julian Barnes’s debut novel. For Christopher, growing up in 1950s Metroland (the suburbs north-west of London, which are serviced by the Metropolitan line) surrounded by the beige middle classes, is anything but thrilling. However, he and best friend Toni have big ideas about Life, Art, and everything at the age of sixteen as the sixties begin to find their stride. Leaping forward to 1968, Christopher finds himself in the hot house of Paris amid student riots and burning creativity. However, these are but the background to twenty-one-year-old Christopher’s ever-evolving life as he meets his first love, Annick – a precocious and, seemingly, self-assured young French woman. The two argue about Philosophy and Life, but Christopher is less sure of himself in the face of her mature intelligence. In the final section, Christopher, now thirty, is seen in a comfortable job with a young family and a respectable suburban life, thoughts of Rimbaud and Flaubert fading into the background of his consciousness.

Full of dreams and ambitions, Christopher’s creeping conformity is not an uncommon subject for the bildungsroman, but his quiet acceptance of the life mundane is still gently poignant. There’s no raging against the machine here: lofty notions quickly dispelled, this is the story of the everyman, the conformist. Seen over the course of the novel, the evolution of Christopher’s thoughts is nicely done, and all the more potent for having been demonstrated with such brevity over a few short pages. The inevitability of submission to the order of things, the mundanity of life and the creeping determinism that sees generation after generation repeat the same steps is well realised. Whether this conformity is the route to contentment – a sensible maturing – or something else is left open, Christopher only beginning to truly wrestle with this question as the novel closes.

The prose is understated and Barnes gently guides the reader through Christopher’s story, only occasionally stretching one’s vocabulary as he slips into French. This quiet yet elegant style shouldn’t be underestimated – while it feels cosy, there is a burgeoning intelligence beneath it. It’s funny, too, in places and Barnes’s observations are neat and will resonate with anyone who’s dreamed of escaping the suburbs. Particularly good are the teenage conversations and the wry observations about art gallery dwellers, so too Christopher’s later attempts to impress his French girlfriend. In keeping, the plot runs smoothly, with no events of great dramatic importance intruding on the plot, but rather an inexorable creeping towards the novel’s conclusion.

To write a coming-of-age novel, which deals with topics the novelist has surely himself dealt with, seems almost a rite of passage for young male authors. Barnes’s effort bends pleasingly towards his own interests and provides an enjoyable introduction to his work. By no means startling, this is a competent, readable debut, which deals, quietly, with the angst that is elsewhere so flamboyantly described. Metroland, unsurprisingly, is not as sophisticated as some of Barnes’s later novels, where he better evokes emotions through his sharp style, and produces more structurally impressive works. However, themes of middle-class complacency/regret, affinity with French culture, and reality and fiction, will be familiar to any reader of Barnes and this is not a bad place to start. To add to a genre of fiction that has been so heavily explored is difficult, and Barnes makes a reasonable attempt at it here. Metroland is a subtle, restrained book and achieves its aims without any great flourishes. Not a classic, not startlingly enlightening, but a neat portrait of life in the suburbs.

I think I pretty much summed my feelings up above: an enjoyable but probably forgettable read. I remain impressed by Barnes's ability to rein in his prose and keep them measured, even as a young man.


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