`The Only Story' pulls at memory and heartstrings

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When I was in high school, I had a major crush on one of my teachers, something which caught me totally off guard, and mostly because it seemed to exist in a different dimension than the rest of my ongoing life. I was a good student but not a brainiac. I was a varsity athlete but not a star. My girlfriend was smart and beautiful. I was popular and well respected, even though I excelled at nothing.

And then there was Mrs. X.

I couldn't explain why in her presence I turned to mush. I held doors for her, offered to carry her bags whenever seeing her moving from point A to point B, spoke nothing but the King's English in her presence and went far beyond the manners my parents expected of me, "please"-ing and "thank you"-ing Mrs. X. to death at every bat of the eyelash.

I never once hinted at anything prurient, holding Mrs. X on her deservedly high pedestal as something too pure and too good for this vulgar world.

These memories came back to me recently as I read Julian Barnes' latest novel, "The Only Story" (Vintage International (Reprint Edition), 2019, Softcover, 272 pages, $11), a book that can be described as sweet and heart-wrenching, suggestive and lyrical, but, most of all: pensive.

Barnes follows the life story Paul Roberts, his narrator, who, in the 1960s, as a 19-year-old Sussex University student returns to his parents' house in quiet and proper London suburbia. At his mother's behest, Paul joins a local tennis club, one of the few social outlets in the area.

There he is partnered to play mixed doubles with Susan MacLeod, a 48-year-old married woman with children older than Paul. The attraction is mutual, and, quite unlike my boyhood infatuation with Mrs. X, the two soon become lovers.

Without further spoiling the story, Susan leaves her abusive husband to live with Paul. But all, as one might surmise, doesn't go quite as planned.

Paul, who seems a typically isolated character, is laissez-faire with life's events at seemingly every turn. He admits his memory is foggy and his capacity for honesty a bit dodgy. But in Barnes' incisive narrative he observes life keenly though metaphor, as with how he predicts Susan's personality through her tennis game, early on:

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"Her game had schooling behind it: she got into the correct position, hit fully through her ground strokes, came to the net only when circumstances were propitious, ran her socks off and yet laughed equally when winning and losing. This had been my first impression of her and from tennis I naturally extrapolated her character. I assume that in life too she would be calm, well ordered, and reliable, hitting fully through the ball - the best possible backcourt support for her anxious and impulsive partner at the net."

This is vintage Barnes, the same journey through human memory, love, and heartbreak that bagged him the coveted Man Booker Prize in 2011 for his parallel retrospective look at love in the past in "The Sense of an Ending."

"The Only Story" is not broken down into chapters per se, but into three sweeping sections tagged One, Two, and Three. These sections align with Barnes' primary narrative device, which is the shifting point-of-view from the first, to the second, and then to the third person with a sprinkling of the second.

They also follow Paul's recollections in a loosely chronological way. Importantly, when it is time to be personal and visceral by coming full circle to Susan, Paul finds his voice in the first person.

Barnes is a master at both the power, and trickiness, of remembering. Perhaps more than any novelist today he inherently grasps in words what Salvador Dali's legendary melting clocks try to tell us from his painting, "The Persistence of Memory."

And dredging up my own memories of Mrs. X is a testament to how evocative the narrative flows from Paul Roberts, regardless of the person in which he is speaking.

It's also an indicator to how fickle our own memories can be. Thinking back four decades, I'm left unsure about how the entire episode with Mrs. X came to be in the first place, and how it eventually faded away, as it was always destined to.

But one thing I was certain of with every page I turned in "The Only Story," and that was the power of the emotions that came back to me from my teenage wasteland. That wrenching, twisting and fluttering of my heart in the presence of Mrs. X was real.

And so also it is in Barnes' novel. Looking for a good, quick read right now? "The Only Story" is game, set, and match.

— Reach award-winning freelance journalist Telly Halkias at: E-mail: tchalkias@aol.com, Twitter: @TellyHalkias


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