The Only Story by Julian Barnes, Jonathan Cape, 224pp, £17
In 1960s Surrey, teenager Paul meets Susan Macleod, a 48-year-old married mother of two, at his local tennis club, and the two begin a romantic relationship which is to last more than a decade. Paul’s recollection of events is “the only story” of the book’s title, by which he means the only story of his worth telling.
Like some of Barnes’s earlier works, this slim novel explores formative experiences, mortality and the imprecision of memory. Paul’s frankness about sex is typically Barnesian: literary fiction brought brusquely down to earth.
In common with Barnes’s first novel, Metroland, published in 1980, The Only Story is also, to begin with at least, an unabashed first-person narrative, concentrated on the experiences of a young man. In a culture dominated by self-centredness and social media, this perspective is beginning to seem worn. Paul’s apparent honesty is, to borrow a phrase from Dodie Smith’s classic I Capture the Castle, consciously naïve; it feels uneasy.
The story takes a decidedly darker turn. After a campaign of physical violence from Mrs Macleod’s husband, Susan and her lover “run away together”; that is, they relocate to a drab shared house in London. The tone becomes claustrophobic and sinister. After the initial delight of flouting convention, Paul ultimately finds his new-found freedom empty and bruising. Increasingly isolated, Susan descends into alcoholism. Paul, steadfastly irreligious, can’t decide whether it is the Russians or the Vatican who are “behind it all”.
Paul appreciates his “liberation from the old dogmas”, as he calls them – of religion, patriarchy and hierarchy – but he has no guiding principles to replace them. A supreme disconnect from society haunts him. “I choke on comforting words like ‘redemption’ and ‘closure’,” he says.
Barnes may be investigating the limits of realism in novel form, continually prompting readers to query what is true or false about his characters. The Only Story is a brave and expansive work, compellingly told.