Elegance and versatility—those familiar Barnes strengths define this latest story collection from the distinguished British author.
Six of these 14 stories are about contemporary relationships; another four are miscellaneous; and there’s a quartet called "At Phil & Joanna’s," presenting four separate evenings of dinner-table conversation. The same hosts and guests form a group of upper-middle-class Londoners; well-fed, well-lubricated, kicking back. Their collective profile is fun-loving, casually erudite, liberal and bawdy. The conversation ranges from dog poop and prosthetic testicles to Latin tags and climate change to an overview of sex and love. Barnes artfully calibrates their dialogue so that it transcends brittle repartee to convey warm conviviality and humanist concern. Two of the relationship stories ("East Wind" and "Trespass") feature male protagonists looking for a mate. In ways both funny and painful, they fumble their approaches to women. Two others are not quite so successful; "Sleeping with John Updike" fails to live up to its risqué title, while in "Gardeners’ World," marital problems are obscured by horticultural detail. Their partial failure is more than redeemed by "Marriage Lines," a wrenching study of a young widower’s grief, and the powerful title story about two marriages. The narrator’s admiration for his parents’ enduring intimacy grows as his own marriage crumbles. To diversify the collection, Barnes moves back in time."Carcassonne" is a piquant inquiry into erotic attraction; the great Italian liberator Garibaldi figures prominently. Further back, in 18th-century Vienna, a most unusual doctor seeks to cure the blindness of a musical prodigy. The formal narration fits the period like a glove ("Harmony"). Most memorable, though, is "The Limner." Long ago, a humble artist traveled on horseback, seeking commissions to paint portraits. Wadsworth was also a deaf mute. He is stiffed by a pompous bureaucrat, but nonetheless gives his undeserving sitter the dignity he craved. It is a moving affirmation of true dignity.
Another impressive addition to an already impressive oeuvre.