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Julian Barnes: Staring at the Sun

The story starts off with Tommy Prosser, Hurricane pilot in World War II, witnessing the sunrise twice in the same day (as his plane dips down and comes up again). Prosser, now grounded but with the nickname of Sun-Up, is billeted on the Serjeant family, where our heroine, Jean Serjeant, resides. Before, she had had Uncle Leslie (whom she was no longer allowed to mention), the first person to show her that the world was not the place most others thought it was but that enchantment could be found even in an ordinary life and in an ordinary place. Now Sun-Up is able to take his place but she loses him and ends up with a Michael, a nice, ordinary policeman, and her life slips into total ordinariness. Twenty years go by and suddenly she is pregnant for the first time. Michael does not want the child but is then able to laugh at it. He asks her what she is going to do. Without realizing she is saying it she replies Oh, I’m going to have the baby and leave you.. No-one, not even Jean herself, thinks that she will go but go she does, seven months into her pregnancy. She has a son – Gregory – but neither of them sees Michael again.

It is planes that are the leitmotif of this book – from Prosser’s Hurricane to the model plane Gregory receives from Uncle Leslie for Christmas when he is ten. Gregory, however, is an ordinary child and, for him, the model is a model to look at, not to fly. When she can safely leave Gregory, Jean takes to flying herself, not as a pilot but as traveller. She is eager to see the Seven Wonders of the World, after being treated by Uncle Leslie to a trip to the Pyramids on Concorde. She tracks down Prosser’s widow (Prosser is now dead, having flown too towards the sun, Icarus-like). She makes friends with Rachel, Gregory’s girlfriend. Indeed, Rachel seems more interested in Jean than Gregory. Into the future, as Jean heads for her hundredth birthday, with all the futuristic things we might expect, from euthanasia to a sort of Internet, just a few years before the Internet was really born (Barnes calls it GPC for General Purposes Computer). GPC has a function called TAT (for The Absolute Truth) (I suspect Barnes might have been influenced by Douglas Adams’ Deep Thought), which is the Internet like feature and which Gregory introduces to Jean and which he uses, amongst other things, to try and determine the nature of God. But it all ends in planes, in flying towards the Sun and that is where they are going at the end.

This is a remarkably complex novel which, at least in part, shows how an ordinary life can be made less ordinary by seeing beyond our humdrum existence, even while keeping our feet on the ground and doing all the things we have to do to get by. Maybe, somehow out there, we can find something else and maybe we stay at home and find it there.

Publishing history

First published 1986 by Jonathan Cape