Julian Barnes looks set for another Man Booker nomination with The Only Story | Books | Entertainment

On the opening page, our narrator Paul tells us, “Most of us only have one story to tell. I don’t mean that only one thing happens to us in our lives… But there’s only one that matters, only one finally worth telling. This is mine.”

The events Paul narrates began over 50 years ago when he was 19 and living with his parents in a middle-class stockbroker belt.

During his first summer home from university, his mother encouraged him to join the local tennis club “perhaps hoping that I would meet a nice blonde Christine, or a sparky, black-ringleted Virginia”.

Instead, Paul falls in love with and embarks upon an affair with Mrs Susan Macleod, more than 20 years his senior.

It is an affair that upsets the quiet respectability of the community and sees the pair ejected from the tennis club.

They eventually leave to set up home together in London. But Booker Prize-winning Barnes is not interested in happy endings.

What he explores in The Only Story are the vagaries of memory, the fantasies with which we airbrush our relationships and the emotional damage that not even love can cure.

It is not just the age difference that causes problems in the decade-long relationship between Susan and Paul.

Susan has been the victim of abuse at the hands of both a molesting uncle during her childhood and a violent husband.

Paul, one senses, not only gives Susan the chance to recapture her youth, but an opportunity to start afresh with someone kind and devoted.

Except, as Barnes portrays beautifully, we carry our traumas with us and eventually they infect even the most optimistic of relationships.

Throughout the novel, Barnes’ prose is quiet and understated: his descriptions of an abusive marriage, of alcoholism and of the dissolution of a relationship are skilfully restrained and all the more powerful for it.

And there is much humour here, too, particularly in Barnes’ characterisation of middle-class mores and the tensions between generations.

Deeply affecting and profoundly philosophical, The Only Story is a novel by an author at the height of his technical powers and should win Barnes a fifth Booker Prize nomination. 

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