The Only Story, by Julian Barnes. Pub 2018
“Sometimes you see a couple, and they seem bored witless with one another, and you can’t imagine them having anything in common, or why they’re still living together. But it’s not just habit or complacency or convention or anything like that. It’s because once, they had their love story. Everyone does. It’s the only story.”
This is not a happy story. There are moments of happiness and love and joy, but it’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion – you can’t look away, and on some level you are hoping something miraculous will happen to rescue things. This is a story told from memories, by someone looking to reconcile and accept their own part in the only story they have – their love story. Told in exceptionally eloquent prose (all hail Julian Barnes, blithe user of words such as palimpsest and enfilade), with phrases that ring so painfully true, the story drifts back and forth through time, as it does when remembering back over a life, episodes overlapping and twigging additional memories, sometimes repeating, but following a general thread from past to present.
As always, there is clever use of language and tense throughout. Although entirely the remembered story of the main characters, Part One is told in first person present tense, which I think reflects the ego and audacity of the young lover. In Part Two, there is more second person (“you watch as she…”) and a bit more past tense as we approach the present and its tainted sense of love; perhaps more honesty with the unhappiness. In Part Three, it weaves between first, second and third, as we attempt to reconcile remorse and sift through memories for a glimpse of the love story. We know they had one.
As he covered in The Sense of an Ending, Barnes shows memory as unreliable when it comes to matters of the heart. He asks, “Which are truer, the happy memories, or the unhappy ones?” If memory is biased, in which direction? In The Only Story, the protagonist-as-narrator is as unreliable as they come, but as the story reveals more and more of the truth, of his only story, you come to believe the tales because they are so unhappy – they must be true because they are so sad.
You will not finish this book clicking your heels, loving the characters and yearning for more. But you likely will recognize the truths therein, and may both revel and revile at your own memories of times of love happy and unhappy.
I refer to this as un-numberable because it was only after finishing it that I realized it does not match a single category on this year’s list. But he is one of my favourite authors, and so I had to yield to my novel-lust and read it as soon as humanly possible.