The Only Story

Written by Julian Barnes
Review by Douglas Kemp

England in the early 1960s. Paul Roberts is nineteen and home for the summer holidays after completing his first year at Sussex University. He lives with his parents in a conventional and respectable middle-class commuting suburb south of London. He is persuaded to join the local tennis club, where he is teamed up in a competition with Susan Mcleod, a married mother of two in her late 40s whose marriage is in a sad state. Against all of society’s conventions, they start an adulterous affair. The affair forms into a longer-term relationship, which then creates difficulties, which Paul narrates with a wistful, painful honesty. This early love shapes the rest of Paul’s life, his emotions and his relationships, as it resonates throughout the years until he reaches old age himself.

As you expect from fiction from Julian Barnes, it is a literate, intelligent, and beautifully written and observed novel. The narrator’s gentle, nostalgic and honest account of his liaison with Susan, as he looks back from the distance of fifty years, tries to make sense of their time together and all that happened subsequently. It is the most important event in Paul Roberts’ life. Julian Barnes demonstrates that you do not have to write challenging, experimental cutting-edge contemporary fiction to give the reader an insight into a life, to show how we can live today.