by Julian Barnes
“Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer less? That is, I think, finally, the only real question.”
Book critics have been busy comparing The Only Story, Julian Barnes‘ latest tale of suburban goings-on, with his 2011 Man Booker Prize-winning, The Sense of an Ending. While it’s true both novels are narrated by melancholic older men looking back on their lives, the protagonists recollect their pasts in different ways. The defining disparity between the two is that the author’s latest hero endeavours (successfully, in the main) to recover truth from his memories.
It is 1963. Nineteen-year-old Paul is on his summer break from university, feeling directionless and adrift. His parochial, somewhat stodgy parents think he should be out mingling with people of influence while considering his future. He therefore joins the local tennis club where he is asked to partner forty-something Susan Macleod in the mixed doubles. What his mother and father cannot foresee is that their boy will become emotionally entangled with this woman who lives only a short distance away with her husband and two daughters.
Paul mischievously refers to his fellow tennis club members as “Hugos” and “Carolines”. They are terribly middle-class, smugly conceited individuals, who adhere to strict social codes. Susan, on the other hand, seems different. She is funny, knowing and attractive. She also happens to be in a bad marriage. He falls in love with her. She falls in love with him. From his perspective no problem is insurmountable: life is simple and rather wonderful.
But of course, nothing is ever so straightforward. Paul is proud of his relationship with Susan, but she has stoically endured many years of unhappiness, and it has taken a toll. She describes herself as part of a “played-out generation.” Over the following decade he will, like his parents, become familiar with duty, secrecy and shame.
Barnes deftly shows how unspoken feelings can cause a gradual erosion of intimacy and respect, leaving guilt and emptiness in place of adoration.
Many thanks to Random House UK, Vintage Publishing for supplying an advance review copy of this title.