The Only Story, by Julian Barnes
BPS Bookclub, April 2019
Review of The Only Story, Julian Barnes
Well, this was an interesting one. Very rarely do two groups differ quite so markedly in their assessment of the same book!
It was definitely a book that prompted a lot of discussion, often far-reaching beyond the scope of the immediate story, so that in itself gives the book some merit. In a sense, the opposing views reflect the view of Paul / the writer too, in that he constantly questions the validity and reliability of his own memories and his own views.
The writing style is simple so it was a quick read. Structurally the book falls into three parts (a common feature of Barnes’ work ) and each quite cleverly reflects a separate part of Paul’s life: -
Part 1: The ‘ I’ of adolescence, naivety, rebellion and passion : -
Whether or not Paul and Susan’s love affair was really true passion was a much debated point. There wasn’t much obvious evidence of this, but then as the book progresses the meaning is more about what is not said, than what is expressed. Was each person just immature and trying to rebel and escape from less than perfect circumstances, or was it really a poignant meeting of souls? Were they just needy and self obsessed? Was Susan already fragile and vulnerable, or charming and innocent?
Part 2: The ‘ you’ of London, struggling with very adult problems:
Hiding most of those problems from those closest to you, trying to find an ‘acceptable normality’ and a universality in what are very particular issues, and above all seeking self preservation. How Paul deals with Susan’s increasing alcohol abuse is written with insight and sympathy.
There are some very telling episodes in this section, not least Susan’s inability to structure a narrative for her own divorce, which foretells a lot about her inability to cope.
Part 3: The ‘he’ of the later life, reflecting with distance on what was, and what might have been:
Was Paul courageous in standing by Susan, throughout some very miserable years? Or was he a coward in not dealing with it better, and in eventually ‘handing her back’ to her family?
Aside from his life with Susan, was he “settling for secondbest” with his lacklustre career, or was he simply attempting to put control back in his life where there had been none for years?
There were many questions about Paul’s lack of any relationship with his parents, and about the brutish and unsympathetic Gordon, who seems to act with impunity throughout.
Was it really love, or just co-dependence? We are left with the lasting image of his own dream sequence – holding Susan by the wrists as he leaned out of an upper floor window. Was he holding her up, or was she pulling him out? We might never agree…….!!!
Side point – Julian Barnes’s 2011 Booker winning novel Sense of an Ending was well thought of by those who have read it, and apparently it’s a great film!