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

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