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The Only Story by Julian Barnes

The Only Story by Julian Barnes
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£16.99

Like his Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes’s new novel is narrated by an older man looking back, in puzzlement, on his past, said Kate Clanchy in The Guardian. When the story opens – in 1960s Surrey – “Paul is 19, down from university, and bored and aimless”. His mother sends him off to the tennis club, where he embarks on an affair with a “knowing, ironical” 48-year-old named Susan. The relationship proves to be the “defining event” – indeed the “only story” – of Paul’s life: Susan leaves her husband and the couple set up home together. But as the years pass, their romance curdles – because of Susan’s creeping alcoholism. Marked by its “psychological acuity”, this is a quietly harrowing novel about the complexity of love and the slipperiness of memory.

To a large extent, The Only Story represents a “return to origins” for Barnes, said Jon Day in the Financial Times. We are “back in the suburbs of Metroland” – the privet hedge-lined world of his 1980 debut. And Paul is the latest in a long line of protagonists “embarrassed” by the “bourgeois horrors” of family life. While it may not be especially original, this is still a “brilliant”, probing work. It’s certainly cleverly constructed and packed with “skilfully turned essays”, said David Sexton in the London Evening Standard. Yet it also displays – like so much of this author’s work – a remarkable disdain for the English middle classes and “no sympathy whatsoever for family”. Even as a love story, it struggles to be believable: it is “improbably pitched from the start”. “Not since Anita Brookner has such an accomplished novelist so skilfully put forward such a wrongful, damaging, view of life.”