Book review: The Noise of Time

Julian BarnesThis Julian Barnes book is about big subjects: creativity and power, moral courage and cowardice, love and fear, autocratic government and political manipulation of the arts. Oh, and music. But I couldn’t work it out. Something didn’t work for me but I struggle to explain why. I started it, got bored, put it aside, picked it up and got through to the end.

The subject matter is interesting – Soviet attitudes to art, creativity and music – the writing is eloquent, weighty and thoughtful, this is Julian Barnes after all. There is some drama as the book opens, a man, the Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich, spends another night by the lift in his apartment building, waiting to be arrested. He is afraid for his life, but that fear seemed flat on the page. Like the reader, Shostakovich is left not knowing what is happening. At times it felt like reading an essay rather than fiction, albeit a fictionalised biography. Perhaps it is this fuzzy genre which is at the root of my inertia.

I read on because it is Barnes and because the exploration of music interested me. But I did not care about him. Is this because he was a real person and Barnes is effectively writing a historical novel? I know nothing about Shostakovich and cannot make judgement about the veracity of the portrayal here, but this is not a problem for me when reading a Philippa Gregory novel about a Tudor queen. I trust both authors to get it right but it feels as if Barnes wrote the character of Dimitri with the volume turned down.

If you like ‘The Noise of Time’, try:-
‘Life Class’ by Pat Barker
‘A History of Loneliness’ by John Boyne
‘The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly’ by Sun-Mi Hwang

‘The Noise of Time’ by Julian Barnes [UK: Jonathan Cape] Buy now

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
THE NOISE OF TIME by Julian Barnes #bookreview via @SandraDanby


  1. It’s odd – all these books (Barnes, McEwan, Amis) get all the big reviews in the serious newspapers. But it is the populist genres – crime, chick-lit, popular historical fiction – which sell piles and subsidize the books I mentioned at the start. I have The Noise Of Time but I suspect if you could make little of it, Sandra, then I’ll really be struggling! Shame, as in the past I’ve found Barnes fairly accessible.

    • sandradan1

      I know. Some of these ‘big’ books read as if they need a good editor to add clarity, perhaps the authors have earned the right to maintain their m/s untouched. But sometimes it feels as if ‘plot’ is a dirty word. SD

      • Yes, they’ve been coasting on their highbrow reputation for years. As for your last comment – that ‘plot’ sometimes feels like a dirty word – I couldn’t agree more! And there’s a sort of snobbery attached to these books – if you don’t “get” them you’re obviously stupid or undereducated.