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BOOK REVIEW: Flaubert’s Parrot – Julian Barnes

Wednesday, October 26, 2016


Which of two stuffed parrots was the inspiration for one of Flaubert's greatest stories? Why did the master keep changing the colour of Emma Bovary's eyes? And why should it matter so much to Geoffrey Braithwaite, a retired doctor haunted by a private secret? In "Flaubert's Parrot", Julian Barnes spins out a multiple mystery of obsession and betrayal (both scholarly and romantic) and creates an exuberant enquiry into the ways in which art mirrors life and then turns around to shape it.


I saw Julian Barnes at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, and he was such a fascinating speaker I was most curious to read some of his work. I bought the last copy of Flaubert’s Parrot in the bookshop, and found it a really interesting and unusual 

read. In some ways, it is a metafictive biography of Gustave Flaubert, the author of Madame Bovary, told through lists, letters and diaries real and imagined, as well as more conventional biographical techniques. It is, however, also a work of fiction, telling the story of Flaubert-tragic Geoffrey Braithwaite who becomes obsessed with tracking down the real stuffed parrot that inspired one of the French writer’s most famous stories. The quest is, of course, both ludicrous and futile, as is the life of poor Geoffrey (and, one could infer, the work of any biographer). Geoffrey Braithwaite is a classic unreliable narrator, adding another level of interest to the narrative.

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