Jonathan Cape, £14.99, 228pp. £13.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Pulse, By Julian Barnes

The artful arrangement of the short stories in Julian Barnes's new collection dramatises the conventional split between mind and body. Part One mostly features people talking and thinking without linking feeling to intelligence. Part Two, on the other hand, emphasises physical awareness. The collection explores different ways of knowing: intellectual, intuitive, imaginative. The eponymous "pulse" comes to seem a connectedness between living things; the heartbeat of the world.

Barnes starts us off at the bottom of a pit of bleakness. "East Wind", coolly narrated in the third person, offers an unprepossessing protagonist, Vernon, a divorced estate agent, who projects his depression into the "bored sky" and "lifeless sea" of the resort where he now lives. He regards women as chopped-up physical parts: "A broad face, streaked hair, chunky body". Dispiritedly, he has sex: "He didn't think about her very much that first time. It was a question of looking out for yourself." For Vernon, to give a particular caress is to "do stuff...down there".

The German waitress putting up with Vernon keeps her past life strictly secret. Thinking he has fallen in love, and so becoming consumed by curiosity, he steals her keys and rummages through her room. Images of sea and swimming help construct this tale, which reminded me of the myth of Melusina. When her husband, forbidden to spy, peeps through the keyhole to watch her bathing, Melusina flies up in wrath, transforms herself into her true shape as a sea-serpent-goddess, and disappears for ever.

A similarly inept bloke in "Trespass" struggles with "what, despite principled beliefs to the contrary, he nonetheless could only regard as gross female illogicality... One minute you were steaming along a track, the weight on your shoulders barely noticeable, and then suddenly you were in a pathless scrubland with no waymarks, the mist descending and the ground boggy beneath your feet." In the wryly told "Gardeners' World", a doggedly affectionate husband outsources marital trouble into polite battles over garden design.

In "Sleeping with John Updike", the ironic, puzzled-male point of view dissolves into a caricature portrait of two hypocritical middle-aged women writers, purportedly "sisterly", guiltily indulging in mutual spitefulness. Barnes's affectionately omniscient depiction of bourgeois repression reaches its apotheosis in the sequence of four tales "At Phil and Joanna's". The reader eavesdrops on a bunch of chatterati singing for their supper, desperately clever and witty, always in control, joking about sex but shy of discussing love.

Then comes the surprising, welcome turning point. Tender and poignant, "Marriage Lines" considers sorrow, sings an elegy for a dead beloved. A grieving widower, revisiting the island off Scotland where he used to holiday with his wife, remembers how "she liked to search for pieces of coloured glass - tiny shards of broken bottle worn soft and smooth by water and time". The image beautifully carries the story's meanings around treasure, loss, tides, change, and death: "he remembered her eyes shining like the damp glass jewellery she used to fill her palm with". The narrator's holding-back delicately leaves room for the reader's response.

As we die, our senses abandon us. In the second group of stories, a formal constraint paradoxically animates content. Concentrating on one lost sense at a time, Barnes explores lively physical experience alongside his protagonists' sense of the inadequacy of language to express what they feel. The wise ones rely on non-linguistic images. "Pulse" shows that to be handicapped can also mean sniffing out humanity and intimacy. The deaf painter in "The Limner" is able to capture moral truth, and in "Harmony" a "hysterical" blind pianist, pre-dating Freud's Dora, considers the secondary gains afforded by her affliction.

The first-person narrator of "Complicity" muses on the various functions of gloves when worn by a woman with the pale fingertips characteristic of Raynaud's Syndrome. He wonderfully abandons knowingness in favour of not-knowing; of wanting to find out. He makes a modest acknowledgment of ignorance as the way towards delight. His story circles as consciousness does, connecting images of hands, touch, wounds, love, and hurt, interweaving memory, comedy, speculation. The use of the first person makes for a powerful ending that is also a lovely beginning: "And then I touched her".



Michèle Roberts's 'Mud: stories of sex and love' is published by Virago

Arts and Entertainment
The new Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris
architecture

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
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.

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past