In a sense, Julian Barnes’ new novel, THE ONLY STORY, is a return, in tone and theme and texture, to his Booker award winning The Sense of An Ending.
THE ONLY STORY is a reverie of a love affair between nineteen year old Paul and Susan, married, mother of two, and twice his age.
Told in three parts, THE ONLY STORY is narrated by Paul in the first two parts, then the author reverts to a third person telling in the third.
Meeting at the Village tennis courts, matched up for mixed doubles, the great game of love all is set against a background of comfortability and conformity.
The thrill of first love by the teenage boy is tinged with the added frisson of adultery with an older woman, a thumbing of the nose to his conventional surrounds.
“My parents’ marriage, to my unforgiving nineteen-year-old eye, was a car crash cliché.”
Like all lovers, Paul and Susan are locked in the only story, their story, a story of two told by one. A true story of true love told through the different authenticity of memory.
“Who in love looks forward to retrospect?” says Paul while looking back on the richness of their relationship before it descended into rubble.
“Love by its very nature is cataclysmic”, writes Paul and THE ONLY STORY certainly builds to a climactic cataclysm..
As mentioned, in part three of THE ONLY STORY, Barnes changes from first to third person narrative, to illustrate and emphasise “the raucousness of the first person within him was stilled. It was as if he viewed, and lived, his life in the third person. Which allowed him to assess it more accurately, he believed”. Again, Barnes eludes to the accuracy and authenticity of memory, how it is shaped and shared into the only story.
“When you are young you owe no duty to the future; but when you are old, you owe a duty to the past. To the one thing you cant change”.
Indeed, it is Susan’s duty to the past that scuttle her and Paul’s future.
“She is strong enough to love you, strong enough to run off with you, but not strong enough to enter a court of law and give evidence against her husband about the decades of sexless tyranny, alcoholism and physical attack…there is a question of shame at the bottom of it… she cannot admit to the true nature of her marriage.”
Ironically, it is Susan’s spiral into alcoholism that undermine the emotional health of her new life and the doldrums of the drunk degenerate into the deep depressions of dementia.
Barnes quotes Tennyson – It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all – and it becomes a leitmotif of THE ONLY STORY.
A sad story, as all stories really must be, written with such ease of expression, heartrendingly human, a question of what heartbreak is, and how exactly the heart breaks, and what is left of it afterwards.
Forgive the cliché, but if you read only one story this year, make it THE ONLY STORY.
THE ONLY STORY by Julian Barnes is published by Jonathan Cape.