Book by Julian Barnes

Marni Jackson

PulseThis is a collection of short stories, set in wildly different circumstances, that focus on pivotal moments in love: what makes us choose one person over another, the unpredictable course of mourning, and the trivial gestures that can break or make a new romance.

In the story “Complicity,” it’s the secret exchange of cigarettes and matches behind a partner’s back at a party that lights a spark. In settings that range from a remote Scottish island to 18th-century Brazil, Barnes writes about these small transitional moments that tip us toward happiness or loneliness, with precision and tenderness. And as a palate freshener, three stories consist of nothing more than the unfettered conversations at a dinner party of old friends who overshare about their middle-aged sex lives and joke about the decline of the world. It’s like the real thing, where guests are torn between reaching for their coats or pouring another drink.

There’s an exhilarating sense of freedom in these stories, even the sad ones, because for Barnes, curiosity about human nature seems to trump everything, including literary vanity: he would rather risk boring or offending his readers in order to imagine what X might say next. He likes to create an off-leash zone for his characters, where they can do as they please. In “Trespass,” he observes a young Englishwoman in a new relationship with a single fellow who is obsessive about hiking. They go on carefully calibrated walks, until she decides that there’s more to love than staying on the trail and wearing proper rain gear.

Barnes, whose most recent novel, Arthur & George, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, doesn’t waste our time on swaths of mere writing; his eye is on the peculiarities of human behaviour and sexual desire. When a character in one of the stories overhears three women talking about how different foods affect the taste of sperm, he just has to chime in. (“And what about asparagus?”) In the title story, he creates a loving portrait of a long-married English couple whose health begins to fail in unusual ways. The man is losing his sense of smell, a minor but life-changing affliction that the author uses to explore what it feels like to age, and to slowly lose the scent of the world. Like a good birdwatcher, Barnes detects movement where the rest of us see stillness, and makes us grateful for the hidden flashes of life he captures in these stories.