Saturday 24 February 2018

The Only Story by Julian Barnes  {Reviewed by STELLA}
If you enjoyed Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, then you should put his latest novel high on your list (and if you haven’t read either, do). The Only Story describes a relationship, a love story, over several decades. Like in The Sense of an Ending, we enter the head of a man looking back at his relationship from its inception to an end he would not have prescribed. Paul is nineteen, home from university during the summer months and bored by the suburban dulldom in finds himself stuck in. When his mother suggests joining the local tennis club, he does it with a sense of irony, hardly expecting to meet anyone who isn’t a ‘Charlotte or a Hugo’ as he aptly titles the local players. But a mixed double competition sees him paired with the captivating Mrs Susan Macleod. “We are facing one another. I feel at the same time baffled and at ease. She is wearing her usual tennis dress, and I find myself wondering if its buttons undo, or are merely ornamental.” The first part of this book recalls their meeting and subsequent progression to the status of lovers. Told in both the older man’s voice looking back (with all its accumulated knowledge) and from the younger Paul’s perspective, Barnes allows us a glimpse into Paul’s naivety and the rush of first love coupled with dismissive asides to the reader from Paul the older. “The time, the place, the social milieu? I’m not sure how important they are in stories about love.” There are the heartfelt confusions and passions of a young man in a relationship with a woman thirty years his senior juxtaposed with Paul’s unwillingness or inability to reveal all from the privilege of hindsight, with his sometimes flippant commentary. "I never kept a diary...So I'm not necessarily putting it down in the order that it happened. I think there's a different authenticity to memory and not an inferior one. Memory sorts and shifts according to the demands made on it by the rememberer". A much less able writer wouldn’t pull this off, but for Barnes it is seamless. The second part of the book looks at Paul's and Susan's life together as a couple in London. Susan has left her husband, but never goes as far as divorcing him or sorting out their shared property. We are never told why she retains her ties to this marriage, one which occurred more out of convenience or duty than love, yet as the story unfolds we get a glimpse of the reasons. Paul's and Susan’s story is a love story like any other, yet there are cracks in the veneer. Susan is a mystery in many ways to Paul, yet, obsessively in love and fiercely loyal, he is either oblivious or unwilling to see aspects that don’t fit his ideal of Susan. When he does, this is torment, and his inability to help her drives him to abandon their relationship. In the third part, we meet Paul - a successful middle-aged man who holds himself emotionally apart, contemplating the opening lines of this book, “Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think, finally, the only real question”. 

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