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Before She Met Me

Julian Barnes, Before She Met Me (Jonathan Cape, 1982)

“So why should this jealousy linger on, unwanted, resented, only there to bugger you around? Like a middle ear, only there to make you lose your sense of balance.”

There’s no denying that Julian Barnes’s Before She Met Me is an absorbing, even compelling, account of one man’s descent from jealousy into obsession and ultimately to insanity. Graham, at first happily and then unsatisfying married, falls for Ann, for whom he leaves his wife and daughter. Ann, a sometime bit-part actress seems to offer Graham the solace and companionship which he has just discovered he’s been lacking all these years. By then, through the offices of his bitter ex-wife, he happens to see a film featuring, albeit briefly, Ann. He becomes obsessed with her past, convulsively gathering evidence of her former liaisons and boyfriends and even passing acquaintances. But he can’t leave it there: and what he imagines his new wife did before she met him becomes worse than the reality. Sad, funny and disturbing, Barnes’ prose is, as always, well-measured and quite elegant. Yet there is something just a little unsatisfying about this novel.

Never quite convinced that Graham’s descent is totally self-driven, the reader is left wondering about the machinations of his friends and his ex-wife. Questions surrounding their role are never quite resolved and yet are too closely drawn to remain provocatively ambiguous. I’ve seen this book described as a ‘dark comedy’. The darkness permeates but for me the comedic element was lacking. Barnes has done a lot better.

Julian Barnes’ Before She Met Me was first published in 1982 by Jonathan Cape.

Read and reviewed in 2006

©Jessica Mulley 2006, 2014

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