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BOUND TO PLEASE / Past and present intertwine in unconventional love story

The Japan News

By Yung-Hsiang Kao / Japan News Staff Writer“The Only Story”

By Julian Barnes

Jonathan Cape, 213pp

What is the worst thing to happen in a relationship? Is it domestic violence? Is it alcoholism? Is it the self-delusion that one partner can save the other?

“The Only Story” looks at a love story — the only story, according to the characters in author Julian Barnes’ latest novel — and reveals that relationships are far more complicated than most stories make them out to be.

Barnes won the Man Booker Prize in 2011 for “The Sense of an Ending” — a tight, economical tale of misremembering the past to soothe the present. “The Only Story” ventures to reexamine the past in all its angles and possibilities to, perhaps, vindicate the past in the present.

On the page after the dedication is the epigraph, “Novel: A small tale, generally of love,” taken from Samuel Johnson’s 1755 A Dictionary of the English Language. The tale of love in this case is between Paul and Susan. Paul meets Susan at a tennis club. He is 19. She is 48. Married. With two daughters.

Sounds like a conventional setup for a story of “forbidden love” doomed to fail. But conventional “The Only Story” isn’t. The style of narration makes this apparent within the first few pages.

Paul speaks at the beginning in the first person, addressing the reader with “you” at times, narrating the story in the past tense at others. But at times past events are suddenly narrated in present tense, to great effect.

One passage begins, “I went to the tennis club,” but the very next paragraph starts, “Later, I offer her a lift.” This continues to “We are facing one another” and “I can’t work out if she is confident or nervous.” All this brings an immediacy to the past, as if the mind is reliving events as they happen.

In the second of the book’s three parts, the circumstances in the relationship become harrowing. Here, besides the first person, Paul addresses himself in the second person, to perhaps bring some distance, objectivity or explanation to past actions:

“You ask yourself: is staying with her an act of courage on your part, or an act of cowardice? Perhaps both? Or is it just an inevitability?”

The final part of the book is Paul speaking in the third person:

“It was as if he viewed, and lived, his life in the third person. Which allowed him to assess it more accurately, he believed.”

This absorbing story does not rely solely on narrative technique. Barnes through Paul is fully aware that painting a rosy picture of life is a futile effort:

“But he also realized that retrospective reorderings of life are always likely to be self-serving.”

The book’s final passage returns to the first person past tense and suggests how Paul, without melodrama or sentimentality, would answer the question about the worst thing to happen in a relationship.

Where to Read

At home in a comfortable chair where you can feel warm and at ease.

Maruzen price: ¥3,300 plus tax (as of Oct.12)

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