Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 23, 2013

Levels of Life (2013), by Julian Barnes

Levels of LifeWriters must write the way they want to, I suppose, but I think it’s rather a shame that this wise and helpful book about grieving begins with a somewhat esoteric exploration of ballooning in its early days.  I didn’t mind it because I had stumbled on the book at the library and brought it home just because it was Julian Barnes and I had liked The Sense of an Ending so much (see my review).  I had no foreknowledge about the theme and there’s nothing much on the cover blurb.  So I read the stuff about ballooning quite cheerfully, and did not realise what a treasure this book is until Part III, The Loss of Depth.

Barnes writes most movingly about his life since the death of his beloved wife in 2008.  He writes about the shock of grief, and how it’s impossible to be prepared for it, because every grief is different and everyone deals with it in different ways.  He is, of course, writing about it some time after the death of his wife – still grieving, but not as he did at first.  But he tells us about Year One, and Year Two, and how it never really ends.  ‘Getting over it’ is impossible, because grief changes the bereaved irrevocably.

This book was especially relevant to me now because a dear colleague has just lost her husband to brain cancer.  I learned from this book that an expression like ‘lost her husband’ might jar: compare ‘We lost our dog to gypsies’, or ‘he lost his wife to a commercial traveller’  (p. 83) and so might euphemistic expressions like ‘pass’: ‘I’m sorry to hear your wife has passed’ (as in ‘passed water? ‘passed blood’?) (p.71), but that really what hurts the bereaved is not the ill-chosen word, it’s that is that people don’t understand, because they can’t.

Grief, like death, is banal and unique.  So, a banal comparison.  When you change your make of car, you suddenly notice how many other cars of the same sort there are on the road. They register in a way they never did before.  When you are widowed, you suddenly notice all the widows and widowers coming towards you.  Before, they had been more or less invisible, and they continue to remain so to other drivers, to the unwidowed.  (p.70)

It seems to me that all of us might benefit from reading Part 3 of this little book, it’s only 40-odd pages of a book just 116 pages long.  But as a guide to an inevitable part of life, it’s invaluable.

Even though there is nothing that can prepare us for it.

Author: Julian Barnes
Title: Levels of Life
Publisher: Jonathan Cape, 2013
ISBN: 9780224098151
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library


Fishpond: Levels of Life


  1. This sounds lovely – if lovely is the word for such a topic – Lisa. There have been some wonderful books – novels and memoirs written about grief I think. Probably my favourite is Marion Halligan’s The fog garden (husband). My favourite memoirs are Joan Didion’s The year of magical thinking (husband and daughter as I recollect), and Isabel Allende’s Paula (daughter).

    I must say that I get really irritated by euphemisms for death – “lost” and “passed” being the two worst. I usually say “died” or “dead” but am often self conscious about doing so because I’m aware that even now a lot of people use those euphemisms.

    I think it’s true that until you experience it you can’t fully understand. Nonetheless, books like this and those I’ve mentioned have real value in helping us know how we might approach people who’ve had a partner or close family member die … they make us realise that the worst thing we can do is to be silent – silent about what they might be going through, silent about the person who’s died.


    • I think you’re right about the real value of books such as this one … our society isn’t very good at dealing with death, and even if reading Levels of Life helps me avoid putting my foot in it with just one person, then that’s a good thing.
      One thing I didn’t mention was that Barnes found himself really irritated by religious people offering to pray for him. It really is very tactless of people with religious belief to do this with non-believers at a time when they are vulnerable and it’s not easy for them to maintain the usual courtesy one shows to believers. Pray away, I would want to say, but do it in the privacy of your own beliefs and show some respect for mine by not telling me about it!


      • Oh yes! They don’t seem to understand that it’s more for them … if they know we don’t believe, how can they think that we will be grateful for praying that we don’t believe will do anything?


  2. Oh this sounds better than his last also very personal story by the sound of it Lisa ,all the best stu


  3. I read this when it was published and was impressed although the subject matter did not at the time seem all that relevant to me. I was reminded slightly of A Grief Observed by C S Lewis. My mandolin teacher’s mother has just died and I told him I was sorry to hear she had “passed away”. Perhaps I need to think carefully about what I say in similar future situations. A sensitive review – thank you for publishing it


    • It’s so hard to find just the right thing to say, especially when everyone reacts differently in grief.
      And it’s so true that books mean different things to us at different times in our lives, and every reader is different. Poor authors, trying to please us all!


  4. I read this book a couple of weeks ago and thought it was excellent. I found understanding in this book. My mother died 14 years ago. Her life is always lingering in my mind and always will, and I want to keep them. Grief is a personal experience, and talking and writing about it is a good way to release the pain. I often talk to mum when I am jogging!



  5. For me, the third part was by far the most affecting of the book as a whole. Very moving.


    • Yes, I am still thinking about it on and off myself. Good books do that, don’t they?


  6. […] across Julian Barnes Levels of Life that day – and it was so beautiful and wise that I read and reviewed that first, and then I found myself with only a day to read all 480 pages of The Ladies’ […]


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