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Pulse, By Julian Barnes

The spectre of mortality looms over this collection, but its characters are resolved to put up a fight

Julian Barnes' previous short-story collection, 2004's The Lemon Table, focused on old age and its attendant regrets, declines and indignities, while his 2009 book Nothing to be Frightened Of was an autobiographical rumination on death tinged darkly by his own fear of ageing and mortality.

Since the publication of these, Barnes has experienced, with black irony, not his own twilight years or demise but the death of his wife. The stories in Pulse reflect this tragedy, the majority of them being concerned with loss: the death of a spouse or a parent; divorce and its aftermath; the snuffing out of vital senses such as sight, hearing or taste; the crumbling of friable new relationships; the straining to snapping point of false expedient "friendships".

One salient difference between the stories in Pulse, the helpless rage of The Lemon Table and the metaphysical theory of Nothing to be Frightened Of is that, in the latter books, the fight against old age and death was inevitably doomed to failure, while in Pulse, the characters, mostly middle-aged, still have the potential to change their lives and start anew. The twinned elements of hope and power lend the stories in Pulse an optimism lacking in the bewitching but bittersweet aforementioned books.

But this is Julian Barnes, a master of describing the human ability to wreck even the most idyllic situation with ugly traits such as jealousy and pedantry. Not all of the characters here grasp their opportunity to start afresh. In "East Wind", the tentative tranquillity of divorced Vernon's new relationship is rippled by his compulsion to dive into the depths of his girlfriend's past. With his acute eye for observation, Barnes is adept at nailing the awkwardness of middle-aged dating, and he slyly avails the reader of Vernon's inadvertent buffoonery, insensitive comments and inappropriate laughter.

In "Sleeping With John Updike", existing fissures in the fake friendship between two middle-aged female writers deepen. The competitiveness, passive aggression and suppressed rage of the two is reminiscent of "The Things You Know" from The Lemon Table, and Barnes' wicked wit results in a delicious concoction steeped in disingenuity.

A malignant core of festering resentment also spreads in "Gardeners' World", in which Barnes' mercilessly forensic gaze lands upon the fractures in a marriage. His many talents include perceiving how it's often the pettiest irritations that undermine foundations, and conveying nuances of mood. In "Trespass", it is a teacher's insistence on pedagogic monologues that drives the poison arrow into his romance.

The most wrenching tale of loss in this collection is the haunting, elegiac "Marriage Lines". A newly bereaved man travels to Barra, the Scottish island he visited annually with his late wife. The insights into grief are the raw ones borne of experience: the lack of tears and numbness of the early stage of bereavement; the thumbing through of memories and wistful regrets that eventually allows feeling to breach the mind's defences; the final ability to feel the full impact and experience all-consuming sorrow. Barnes also captures deftly the stages of marriage: the initial conviction that this one is unique and will not be riddled with bickering like others; the passion, laughter and tenderness; the hiccups that assail any relationship. Like the eroded glass shards the protagonist's wife used to scoop from the beach, this is an unexpectedly beautiful jewel.

It's not all regret, though. In "The Limner", a deaf painter exacts revenge on a venal client, while in "Complicity", the surge of protectiveness a man feels for a woman with Raynaud's (a condition that results in a limiting of blood flow in the cold) builds a bridge between them.

Barnes's erudition is in full display. There are forays into history: Garibaldi in "Carcassonne" and an early case of hysteria in "Harmony". The latter is marred only by the fact that, unlike conditions in which exacerbations by stress are objectively measurable, such as schizophrenia, depression, hypertension and angina, hysterical blindness doesn't actually lead to a physical inability to see.

The least successful stories are a sequence about middle-class dinner parties, rendered largely in dialogue. As Jane Smiley's Ten Days in the Hills showed, however lofty the aim, eavesdropping on the social chat of fictional characters is often tedious. The smatterings of intellectual minutiae in these stories aren't expanded upon, and it would be different if the guests showed the considered wisdom or eloquence of Barnes himself, but they don't. Still, there's no shortage of that elsewhere in this collection, which combines mordant humour, perspicacity and invigoratingly crisp writing.

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