The brilliantly playful author of Flaubert's Parrot and Cross Channel brings off a remarkable coup. He has imagined, with his customary wit, an England created especially for tourists, located on the Isle of Wight and equipped with all the essential elements of Englishness in their idealized form: Beefeaters, simple country policemen, village cricket matches, a Tower of London thoughtfully provided with a Harrod's store, reproductions of Robin Hood and his band, a Battle of Britain fought by period Spitfires every day, plenty of pubs and, of course, a miniature Buckingham Palace (the real king and queen have been put on salary and officiate at ceremonies as required). This is all the idea, and devising, of Sir Jack Pitman, one of those overwhelming robber barons of whom English novelists seem so fond. Heroine Martha Cochrane (who has been touchingly introduced in a brief opening chapter as a child) goes to work for him, and soon rises in his organization. Much of the book is a sparkling display of inventiveness as Barnes spoofs Englishry, big business and the fact that most tourists would sooner see an imitation in comfort than the real thing with some difficulty. Martha and her lover blackmail Sir Jack, who is caught in one of those bizarre sexual shenanigans that seem to appeal only to the English, and take over the ersatz England. Then the tables are turned, Martha is thrown out, and the book saunters into an exquisitely poignant coda that envisions a real England that has in effect withdrawn from the contemporary world to lovingly evoked rustic roots. The grace with which the novel's cynical laughter is made to shades into an emotion both dark and quiet is the product of writerly craft at a high pitch. Impossible to characterize adequately, but a rich pleasure on several very different levels, this surprising novel was a strong Booker candidate last year. (May)
Reviewed on: 03/29/1999 Release date: 04/01/1999 Genre: Fiction
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