The Only Story by Julian Barnes
Julian Barnes was one of the first authors I was recommended while I was working as a bookseller. Until then my reading was mostly grounded in sci-fi, horror and fantasy. It was either my first or second week at Waterstones when Sense of an Ending was published. My manager’s enthusiasm for him sold it to me even though it wasn’t normally something I would have picked up.
I adored Sense of an Ending and tore through it in one sitting. It was the first book ever that made me cry so it’s stayed with me ever since. I’ve tried to keep up with him but for some reason, The Noise of Time did nothing for me so I hoped that The Only Story would draw me back into his work.
“Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less and suffer the less?”
Paul is a nineteen-year-old university student back in his quaint English village home and dying of boredom. To keep him entertained and in with the right crowd, his parents sign him up to the local tennis club. There he meets Susan Macleod, a 48-year-old married woman and slowly their friendships drifts into an affair. Throughout their time together he genuinely does not seem to feel the age gap, continuing to lament on the ‘horrors’ of old age and avoiding any responsibility that comes with growing up.
Instead of denying their relationship completely, it is hidden in plain site and Paul often eats with Susan and her husband (a caricature of an evil villain, obese, violent and rude) in their own home. He meets their two daughters, even having friends stay over on their living room floor.
Instead of it being a summer fling, the affair lasts for years, leading to inevitable hurdles as Paul wallows in his youthful lack of responsibility and Susan feels the pressure of society and her family.
The book is broken down into three parts and the final section sees James look back on the relationship that moulded his adult life. Just remember, real life never ends like the movies.
The Only Story is a devastating but wonderful novel that has once again solidified Julian Barnes as an author whose work I need in my life. You could argue that his white, middle-class, privileged male lead is uninspired and I wouldn’t argue with you but it’s what he does and he does it brilliantly.
It’s the small, reflective sentences that Julian Barnes can drop in without warning, a hammer to the heart so sudden that it leaves you feeling bruised.
‘So, now that I am older, I realize that this is one of my human functions: to allow the young to believe that I envy them. Well, obviously I do in a brute matter of being dead first, but otherwise not. And when I see pairs of young lovers, vertically entwined on street corners, or horizontally positioned on a blanket in the park, the main feeling it arouses in me is a kind of protectiveness. No, not pity: protectiveness. Not that they would want my protection. And yet – and this is curious – the more bravado they show in their behaviour, the stronger my response. I want to protect them from what the world is probably going to do to them, and from what they will probably do to one another.’
It’s paragraphs like the above that make this novel.
What I did want more of from The Only Story, was Susan. The little snapshots of her life that you’re given only tease you with a sad yet interesting life, never delving deep enough into them for her to be fully satisfying as a rounded character. Maybe that’s the point, that Paul only sees her as an add-on to his life rather than a being in her own right (which may be confirmed by the lack of consideration he seems to have for the relationship she has with her daughters) but with simple and privileged background, you can’t help but wonder if she may have been able to outshine him.
The Only Story will leave you feeling mellow and introspective but in a positive way. If you enjoyed Sense of an Ending then this novel should definitely move you as it did me. I’m so happy that Julian Barnes has done it again, now I get to look forward to his next one.
Buy your copy of The Only Story by Julian Barnes