Barnes writes with shattering emotional acuity. The Man Booker Prize-winning author’s new novel is narrated by an older man looking back over his life, with parallels to his 2011 book, The Sense of Ending. One might even go as far as to call them companion pieces.
Told from the points of views of now older men looking back over their lives, each explores what Barnes has his most recent protagonist describe as “that familiar question of memory”, namely its inherent unreliability and bias.
Though whereas in The Sense of Ending, Tony is ultimately caught out by false recollections, Paul in The Only Story is a wiser creature, painfully aware of the fact that it’s all too easy to trip over one’s own feet when walking down memory lane.
“So I shall have to be careful,” he says. “Well, I have learned to become careful over the years. As careful now as I was careless then. Or do I mean carefree?” It’s a small distinction, but an important one.
Tony was careless, but Paul, it seems, was only carefree. Something that makes the story that follows all the more harrowing.
“Most of us have only one story to tell,” Paul declares at the beginning of his, “only one that matters, only one finally worth telling.” This, however, presents a problem, “If this is your only story, then it’s the one you have most often told and retold, even if — as is the case here — mainly to yourself. The question then is — do all these retellings bring you closer to the truth of what happened, or move you further away?”
The “only story”, of course, is love, and The Only Story is a love story, even if Barnes’s romantic leads don’t match any star-crossed lovers stereotype. Paul is 19 when his story begins — more than 50 years ago now — and the setting is a familiar one for Barnes fans, the same suburban “stockbroker belt” of his 1980 debut, Metroland.
Having been away for his first year of university, Paul is home for the holidays and bored. His mother suggests he joins the local tennis club. He’s dubious, regarding it as “merely an outdoor branch of the Young Conservatives”, populated by “Hugos and Carolines”, but needs must.
There he meets Mrs Susan Macleod — “clearly not a Caroline” — wearing a white tennis dress with green trim and green buttons, and “somewhere in her forties”.
And again, here Paul is Tony’s counterpart, for when the latter is confronted by the prospect of an attractive older woman, he makes a hasty escape, whereas carefree Paul throws himself headfirst into what ends up being a torturously drawn-out, life-long love affair that consumes his entire existence and leaves him “walking wounded”.
At points I wondered whether this is really what the world needs right now — another novel about a disillusioned older, straight, white man ruing the mistakes he’s made (a different type of “the only story”), but Barnes writes with such shattering emotional acuity. The moments of pure devastation pile up, the story crushing with increasing weight as it unfurls.