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Review: The Only Story by Julian Barnes

Love, and what love has to do with truth, have been the central themes of Julian Barnes’s oeuvre

books Updated: May 18, 2018 18:42 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya
Soumya Bhattacharya
Hindustan Times
2011 Man Booker Prize,English,Michel Houellebecq
Of passion in English suburbia: A street in a suburb of Birmingham, UK.(UIG via Getty Images)
Rs 699, 213 pp; Penguin RandomHouse

The judges who awarded Julian Barnes the 2011 Man Booker Prize for his novel, The Sense of an Ending, called him “an unparalleled magus of the human heart”. Now, in the blurb of his second novel since that prize, his publishers have called him “one of fiction’s greatest mappers of the human heart”.

No one should be surprised. Love, and what love has to do with truth, have been the central themes of Barnes’s oeuvre. “Love and truth, that’s the vital connection, love and truth,” he writes in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. In that same book, in the unforgettable half chapter titled Parenthesis, this is what he has to say: “One of the troubles is this: the heart isn’t heart-shaped…You can deal with the brain, as I say; it looks sensible. Whereas the heart, the human heart, I’m afraid, looks a fu****g mess.”

And here is Barnes, in this haunting, devastating, new novel, reprising that theme: “Truth and love, that was my credo. I love her, and I see the truth. It must be that simple.”

But it is not that simple. The Only Story shows why. Its narrator, Paul, comes home to English suburbia, “fifteen miles south of London”, from university in Sussex for his holidays. Bored at home, he joins the local tennis club. There, he falls in love with Susan, a 48-year-old, unhappily married, mother of two. In a conservative, conventional society, this is seen as a massive transgression. Paul, not so much oblivious of sneers as revelling in them, runs off with Susan and, with her money, the couple set themselves up in London.

He studies law so that he can make a living. She becomes a homemaker. The idyll lasts for a few years. And then things begin to unravel. Horribly.

Towards the end of the novel’s first section, told in the first person, Barnes foreshadows this unravelling with this chilling sentence: “We were together — under the same roof, that is — for 10 or more years… When she died, a few years ago, I acknowledged that the most vital part of my life had finally come to a close.”

Julian Barnes attends the Gala screening of "The Sense of an Ending" on April 6, 2017 in London, England. (Getty Images)

We have been warned. And yet, the second section of the novel, which is told in the second person and recounts the slow, savage dwindling of the relationship, whips our breath away. “And this is how it is for you now. Love and truth — where have they gone? You ask yourself: is staying with her an act of courage on your part, or an act of cowardice? Perhaps both? Or is it just an inevitability?”

In the final section, narrated in the third person, Paul, as an ageing man, is trying to make sense of his life, and love, by obsessively gnawing away at his memory of those years. He is an unreliable narrator, and, further, is aware of the unreliable nature of memory. “Life is a cross section, memory is a split down the grain, and memory follows it all the way to the end,” we are told. Later, Paul asks whether “all these retellings bring you closer to the truth of what happened?”

Read more: Delicate, finely tuned: Review of The Sense of an Ending by Rashid Irani

Barnes has called Michel Houellebecq a big game hunter in terms of the themes he explores. In that regard, Barnes is a big game hunter himself. Other than love, he has, over the past four decades, focused on death, dying, Englishness, and, more and more, memory, its slippery nature, and how it informs our impression of the past in the present.

All these tropes figure prominently in The Only Story. Taut and tense, it explodes in to life with its opening two sentences: “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.” The momentum never lets up. This story of love and loss is the most searing novel Barnes has ever written.

First Published: May 18, 2018 18:37 IST