Cape £16.99

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Arts and Entertainment
Bryan Cranston will play federal agent Robert Mazur in The Infiltrator

Books
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, say DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin