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Nothing to be Frightened Of    by Julian Barnes order for
Nothing to be Frightened Of
by Julian Barnes
Order:  USA  Can
Vintage, 2009 (2008)
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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In Nothing to be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes (bestselling author of Arthur & George as well as numerous other novels) gives readers a rather philosophic, and often amusing, treatise on mortality and family, often comparing his own views with those of his philosopher brother (who has taught the discipline 'at Oxford, Geneva, and the Sorbonne'). Musings on mortality are set in the context of literature and literati.

Barnes' opening, 'I don't believe in God, but I miss him', immediately caught my attention. He talks about his grandparents, including his colorful grandmother. A socialist, she 'had progressed to being a communist' as an old-age pensioner! He analyses the unreliability of childhood memories via the differences between his own and his elder brother's. He shares growing up with a 'family background of attenuated belief combined with brisk irreligion', talks of the deaths of his parents, and about his own musings on mortality 'as evenings fall, as the days shorten, or towards the end of a long day's hiking.'

I love the Indian leather pouffe - my family had one too, though ours wasn't stuffed with shredded parental love letters. But these nostalgic (for me anyway, with similarities from a British childhood) anecdotes offer light relief from the more serious discussion of death. As Montaigne and his predecessors told us, 'To be a philosopher is to learn how to die.' Barnes delves into implications of increased longevity (assumed as a right nowadays), the nature of happiness and belief, fear of death, and his approach to writing. He compares The Novel that 'tells beautiful, shapely lies which enclose hard, exact truths' with world religions which tell 'A beautiful, shapely story containing hard, exact lies.'

Though a front cover (NY Times Book Review) quote calls this volume funny, the Brit humor is wry and dry, not always accessible to a North American audience. Barnes analyses The Rapture as the 'action-man, X-rated, disaster-movie version of the world's end' and offers cryonics as an answer for thanato-liberals - until, as has already happened in France, an electric malfunction leaves the living with 'every freezer-owner's nightmare.' But he also looks hard at the indignities and losses of old age, in particular 'the mind's fall from grace' through dementia ... 'Identity is memory, I told myself; memory is identity.'

Part meandering memoir, part exploration of life, death and everything in between, this is an intriguing read, if only for nuggets like the Flaubert quote, 'Everything must be learned, from reading to dying', with the author's apt addendum that 'we don't get much practice at the latter.' If death and dying are ever on your mind - and they preoccupy most of us at one time or another before they finally demand our attention - then you really must read Nothing to be Frightened Of.

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