cover image Staring at the Sun

Staring at the Sun

Julian Barnes. Alfred A. Knopf, $15.95 (197pp) ISBN 978-0-394-55821-9

From guileless child to implausibly innocent adolescent and young woman, Jean Serjeantthe central figure in this wonderfully imagined novel by the gifted author of Flaubert's Parrotunaccountably (and perhaps a mite too easily) becomes a mature woman who, without losing her endearing, wide-eyed qualities, acquires a wisdom that lies beyond reason. The narrative of her unremarkable life would otherwise seem drab: she marries the village policeman and stays unhappily married for 20 years, whenseemingly beyond childbearingshe brings forth a son and thereupon leaves her marriage to enter the wider world. A grounded RAF pilot (who cracked under the strain of combat) tells her that he ""stared at the sun'' flying a combat mission in 1941, on the day it had risen twice in what he calls an ``ordinary miracle.'' What is astonishing and moving about Jean's life is its very conventionality and ordinariness; it is as though the author had challenged himself to make poetry out of dust. At the venerable age of 100 in the year 2021, Jean is able to give her son definitive answers to the ultimate questions about death (it is ``absolute''), religion (``nonsense''), suicide (not ``permissible'') while retaining an undiminished sense of awe in the face of a mysterious universe, as she herself, with the fitting grandeur of her unspoiled simplicity, flies up and up into the sky, staring at the sun. (April 2)