Levels of Life

Knopf. 2013. 144p. ISBN 9780385350778. $22.95; ebk. ISBN 9780385350785. LIT
British novelist, essayist, and Man Booker Prize-winning author Barnes (The Sense of an Ending) stitches together three very different essays into a meditation on love, death, grief, and survival. The first piece is a collage about ballooning and photography and establishes the metaphorical motifs that will frame the work as a whole. Indeed, ballooning aptly describes this book's arrangement: Barnes opens with an objective, bird's-eye account of three famous aeronauts and then begins his descent, first toward the ground and then, finally, into his interior thoughts. By the end, his narrative closes completely the psychic distance between the reader and himself. Barnes's wife, Pat Kavanagh, to whom he had been married for 30 years, died suddenly of cancer in 2008. He describes his grief as aimless, disorienting, and unending—as if being carried by the wind, in a balloon. Truly dedicated "To Pat," these essays recall Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, which is also about the bereavement for a spouse. Yet Barnes offers a work that is more universal, illustrating how desire expands and elevates the human condition and yet, paradoxically and necessarily, also promises suffering.
VERDICT This book will resonate most with those who have suffered the death of a loved one, but readers who have deeply loved—and therefore deeply grieved—will also understand and appreciate it.
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