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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

England, England

Julian Barnes

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To purchase England, England

Title: England, England
Author: Julian Barnes
Genre: Novel
Written: 1998
Length: 275 pages
Availability: England, England - US
England, England - UK
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  • England, England was shortlisted for the 1998 Booker Prize. Though far superior to Ian McEwan's Amsterdam (see our review of that book), McEwan's book beat it out for the prize.

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Our Assessment:

A- : thoroughly entertaining, and well-written

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph B+ 8/9/1998 Maggie Gee
The Independent A 29/8/1998 Valentine Cunningham
The LA Times A 13/6/1999 Jonathan Levi
Neue Zürcher Zeitung B 12/10/1999 Jörg Häntzschel
New Statesman C+ 11/9/1998 Jason Cowley
The NY Rev. of Books A 24/6/1999 Michael Wood
The NY Times B- 11/5/1999 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. B 9/5/1999 Richard Eder
The Observer B+ 30/8/1998 Andrew Marr
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Fall/1999 Philip Landon
The Spectator B- 12/9/1998 D. J. Taylor
The Sunday Times A- 23/8/1998 John Carey
The Times C+ 27/8/1998 Erica Wagner
TLS . 28/8/1998 Tom Shippey
Wall St. Journal A 7/5/1999 Jay Hershey

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus -- most think the elegant first and third sections are excellent, but opinions vary widely regarding the large middle portion. Most think the three parts are not made to fit together well, and many don't like Barnes' efforts at satire (though others find it hilarious).

  From the Reviews:
  • "So fährt sich Barnes denn schliesslich in einem Dickicht aus Ernst und Ironie, postmodernen Identitätskonzepten, ihrer Ablehnung und Rehabilitierung fest, bevor klar würde, wohin er damit eigentlich wollte." - Jörg Häntzschel, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "England, England is Barnes's eighth and certainly his worst novel. But it is an interesting failure." - Jason Cowley, New Statesman

  • "(O)ne of the oddest novels you are likely to read this year. It's what they call a romp but it is written in anger." - Andrew Marr, The Observer

  • "England, England chills with the bleakness of its cultural panorama" - Philip Landon, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "Despite its weighty themes, this is a rather trivial and laboured performance." - D. J. Taylor, The Spectator

  • "Julian Barnes's England, England is both funny and serious, a double-act that English novels rarely manage." - John Carey, The Sunday Times

  • "Characters threaten to develop and then never do, bogged down in the mechanics of mockery." - Erica Wagner, The Times

  • "England, England does make one point with overwhelming force, which is that all these perceptions of identity are ultimately constructs, with the strengths and weaknesses of the constructed." - Tom Shippey, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Mr. Barnes has crafted not only a very funny satire about England and the world. He has also skillfully dissected the discomforting ways in which we all have grown to accept, and even depend on, illusion." - Jay Hershey, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Art is imitation, and substitute for reality. Julian Barnes takes this familiar idea and spells it out as simply as he can, concentrating not on the irrelevancy that is art but on matters which matter more, the greater reality of the world stage, of history even, and what these have become in our modern theme-park world of imitation. England is become -- not just in Barnes's world but in reality -- a country that is brand-name and basically lives off of tourism (yes, yes, there is some industry somewhere in the country, and there is the City, but it is tourism that props ye olde country up and keeps it going). What Barnes suggests and then offers is England as theme park. England has, naturally, already been reduced to theme park status, but it is a spread out, hard to navigate theme park, with too many irrelevancies and too much distance between sights. Barnes offers an alternative, the brain-child of his Rupert Murdoch like character, Sir Jack Pitman: "England, England." A theme park offering, in a small space, all that tourists want of their England. All their favourite things, from the Royals to the Manchester United football team, Robin Hood to Samuel Johnson at the local pub.
       The Isle of Wight is ... acquired and taken over, to serve as a proper sized Euro-England, and all the best of England is replicated there, if not moved outright. Even the Royals are brought over, and they usually agree to public appearance for the extra pocket money it brings them. It is a fun idea, and Barnes (and his readers) generally have a lot of fun with it and the many odd details Barnes spins out.
       (It is amusing to see Barnes "borrow" an idea from, of all people, Michael Crichton, but England, England is strongly reminiscent of the classic movie Westworld, written and directed by Mr. Crichton. True, there are no robots in Barnes' futureworld, but amusingly enough both fantasies are bedeviled by similar problems.)
       How Barnes develops his England, England is half the fun. "Potential purchasers of Quality Leisure" -- i.e. the customers England, England is geared to, not the rabble that don't pay top dollar or long yen -- in twenty-five countries are asked to list six "characteristics, virtues or quintessences which the word England suggested to them." The top fifty make for an amusing mirror of English society. Headed by the fairly predictable -- Royals, Big Ben/Parliament, and Man U. (before they even won the triple in 1999) -- Barnes suggests the class system (4), phlegm/stiff upper lip (21), whingeing (42), and beer/warm beer (45) are also representative of how others see the English.
       Much of the central section of England, England describes how Sir Jack strategically builds up his venture, and then makes a great success out of it. Barnes is in top form here, able to poke fun at England, but also setting up a very amusing scenario.
       Before this, however, there is a short section that introduces Martha Cochrane, a cynical girl who eventually (largely because of her remarkable cynicism) gets to work on the grand project. Here Barnes works in a totally different mode, more ambitiously (and obliquely) painting this character, building her up for what is to come. The final section, in the post-apocalyptic world where England, England has completely replaced the true England (which has taken the name Anglia), again centers on Martha who has been forced out of England, England. (It is the one aspect of the novel that does not work seamlessly: Martha blackmails her way into the leadership position -- taking advantage of Sir Jack's infantile sexual predilections -- but fails to make certain that she will continue to wield this power.)
       Martha is an unusual character. She is hardly ever satisfied, and she is very cynical -- though her cynicism never seems excessively hard or harsh, and is by and large the appropriate tone for the very cynical world she moves in. Barnes writes extremely well, and the conversations -- repartee, actually -- ring true. Martha's ultimate recognition of the emptiness of such dialogue, and of the artificial world she comes to inhabit (and, for a while, rule over) is convincingly presented. Even better, Barnes does not make of the anti-England, Anglia, a paradise where Martha can finally find true happiness: she is still searching, still uncertain.
       Barnes' book is a devastating indictment of what the world has come to, of the artificiality of reality and of our indifference to authenticity (the dismissal of the notion that tourists demand the truly authentic is one of the many marvelous riffs in the book). Barnes barely mentions television, but it is that pre-packaged and pre-programmed world, brought right to our door, that he warns us of. By emphasizing history over art (the usual subject for novelists to tackle in this context) he also gives the book far greater resonance.
       England is also an ideal subject -- always insular, Empire lost, even now at a distance from its European Union neighbors (as Barnes explored, less successfully, in his collection, Cross Channel). The subtle (and not so subtle) domestic criticism in no way spoils the book for those with no interest in the concept of England per se. As to the end he proposes -- England reverting to Anglia, stepping back in time -- it seems almost too simple. It is not an outcome that truly convinces, though again he imagines it well in the space of only a few pages.

       We recommend this book very highly. Nominated for the Booker in 1998, it is far more satisfying than Ian McEwan's Amsterdam (which inexplicably won the award).

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England, England: Reviews: Julian Barnes: Other books by Julian Barnes under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       English author Julian Barnes was born in 1946. He is the author of several highly acclaimed novels.

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