‘True love can survive absence, death and infidelity.’
-Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot
To write a review on Julian Barnes’ novel is a challenge that I shall partake in the following minutes because what more is left to say when you have read a book that pushes you into a valley of question when all you wished to do was read a story, a story about some people whose lives throws questions smack into your face. Barnes’ latest novel The Only Story published in February 2018, is a tale told in 200-pages piercing and penetrating into the life of nineteen-year old Paul falling in love with forty eight-year old, unhappily married Susan. It is a story exploring a young boy’s first love; the one that starts as excitement, fun, smiles, sex and love, lots of love which gradually develops and grows as years pass by and love starts placing demands when all he thought was love fulfilled all his demands, love starts asking more than what his youth had foretold.
The book is tender; it is a tender, delicate work of fiction that is written with different and intelligent narratives in all the three sections of the book. The book begins in a typical Barnes’ style and the voice of the narrator rings in your ear as you peruse the book and you immediately know you are in for something that’s not going to be a typical boy-falling-in-love-with-a-girl love story. The way the author develops his story through the use of flashbacks in no chronological order is noteworthy, initially I was sceptical if that would work well but one can never go wrong when one has a book of Barnes’ in hand. The themes of youth and maturity are not new in Barnes’ work. The Booker Prize Winner The Sense of an Ending does come into mind while reading Paul’s story. Paul and Tony Webster are two characters that Barnes has intelligently used to understand and map the trajectory of the process of growing up, of understanding that what we see in life at youth is something entirely different when one looks at it with the years falling down on them as they get nearer to the inevitable. In all honesty, Paul and Susan’s relationship also reminded me of Geoffery Braithwaite and his relation with his wife from Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot, the anagnorisis both the men experience can raise questions about human beings and their hearts; which is one reason why I believe Barnes maps the human heart in the most realistic manner. What is most touching in Barnes’ book and all his other books are the truth, the truth about human beings, the truth of our existence, the honesty that flows throughout his story which one cannot deny and at the same time is so painful for one to accept. In The Only Story, the author has very skilfully dealt with the themes of domestic violence, toxic masculinity alongside the themes of youth, love, growth and maturity. The story tore me apart; it made me cry with every turn of the page. Admittedly, the story is not something you have never heard of, it is not a story the ending to which one would not know but what makes this novel one of my favourite Barnes’ composition is the manner in which the story has been told, the way Barnes tugs right at the most delicate strings of your heart and dismantles it into tiny fragments that shall come back together but not in the way it was pulled tight earlier, Barnes changes something; for better or worse it is for the readers to decide.
‘It is only a metaphor- or the worst of dreams; yet there are metaphors which sit more powerfully in the brain than the remembered events.’
-Julian Barnes, The Only Story