How do you express a regret? Do you put your heart on your sleeve and confess it? Do you play lawyer and coolly assess it from a distance? Or do you try to bargain and rationalize, pointing to all the extenuating circumstances surrounding your mistake?

For Paul, the narrator of Julian Barnes’ heartbreaking 13th novel, “The Only Story,” the answer is “all of the above” and more: He writes as if in a hall of mirrors to make sense of his young, callow self. When he was 19 — five decades earlier — he fell for Susan, a 48-year-old woman in a loveless marriage. That in itself wasn’t the error, though the May-December romance did scandalize the suburban London tennis club where they met. Nor can you entirely fault him for wanting to detach from his dowdy parents when he decided to move to the city with her. “It was a matter of some pride to me that I seemed to have landed on exactly the relationship of which my parents would most disapprove,” he explains.

Regardless, their actions have consequences: The bulk of the novel turns on Susan’s rapid descent into alcoholism, and Paul’s inability to rescue her from it. There are hints that Susan is self-medicating against a lifetime of quiet suffering: She was molested as a girl, abused by her husband, at times violently, and lonely much of her life. From pressing her into therapy to clearing out her liquor stashes, Paul tries a variety of unsuccessful interventions.

At least, that’s how Paul wants the reader to see it. Barnes subtly but powerfully signals how badly Paul wants to absolve himself — or at least sort out how complicit he is — by having him tell “The Only Story” in a variety of moods and tenses. The novel opens in the first person, as if he were delivering a confession. But midway through it slips into the second person, as if to recruit the reader as an accomplice: “She is strong enough to love you, strong enough to run off with you, but not strong enough to enter a court of law and give evidence against her husband about the decades of sexless tyranny, alcoholism, and physical attack,” he writes. And he addresses Susan’s final days in a somber and distant third person, as if this were something that happened to somebody else.

That retrospective, mournful tone has recently been the hallmark for Barnes, now 72 and firmly in his late period. His 2011 novel, the Man Booker Prize-winning “The Sense of an Ending,” was a dark, twisty novella about lost love and death; 2016’s stiffer “The Noise of Time” explored how the composer Dmitri Shostakovich was emotionally brutalized under Soviet rule. “The Only Story” is downcast too. But it evokes the rhetorical playfulness of his earlier work, constantly prodding the reader to consider how complicit or self-deluded its hero is. When Paul writes that “tough love is also tough on the lover,” is he delivering a truism or building an escape hatch?

What’s missing amid Paul’s hand-wringing is Susan’s own perspective: Why, exactly, did she leave her husband to live with an emotionally stunted teenager? The usual thrills of lust and freedom that are typical of such stories are absent; she was abused, but not without other options. Barnes suggests she was desperate enough to exploit Paul’s pliability, though not without a hint of warning. “We all have an act,” she tells Paul early on in their affair. “You’ll have an act one day, oh yes you will.”

In other words, they had something true of every love story, from happily-ever-after fairy tales to this one: Paul and Susan were made for each other. She was emotionally scarred and desired an unwitting enabler; he had enough of a savior complex to contentedly take on the role. Their love is never in doubt. But neither is his sense of helplessness, and Paul flails throughout the novel to explain his actions (or inaction). (“All alcoholics are liars. All lovers are truth-tellers. Therefore, the alcoholic is the opposite of the lover.”) Paul is the opposite of an unreliable narrator, who tells a false story to cover up a true one; he piles on varieties of truth because he can’t nail down what’s wrong.

‘The Only Story’

Julian Barnes

Alfred A. Knopf (253 pages)



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