Eleven old-fashioned stories that take their time but are riveting, muscular, and real.
The ever-capable Barnes (Love, Etc., 2001; the nonfiction Something to Declare, 2002, etc., etc.) is able to write knowingly on an extraordinary range of subjects—from, say, an aristocratic tale of 19th-century French stoicism and sexuality (“Bark”) to the story of a married British military pensioner who falls in love—depending on how you define that—with the London prostitute he sees once a year (“Hygiene”). The approaching death of a great modern composer—on personal terms with Stravinsky and Ralph Vaughn Williams—is every bit as incisive, observant, and moving in its way (“The Silence”) as is the tale of long-ago Sweden and a 23-year love affair that goes unconsummated, unrecognized, and, in the end, pathetically misunderstood (“The Story of Mats Israelson”). Stories that might be merely topical or trendy in lesser hands bear real fruit in Barnes’s, as witness “Appetite,” a tale about the ravages of Alzheimer’s that never comes even close to the dread magazine-article tone that so often haunts and diminishes such efforts; or “The Fruit Cage,” the genuinely compelling story of an aging woman (her grown son narrates) who may indeed actually be a physical abuser of her husband. Even prospectively lesser material can grow authoritative and large with Barnes’s treatment—like his look at hair-cutting then and now (“A Short History of Hairdressing”), or his one-act-playlike portrayal of two widows, each thinking she has the goods on the other (“The Things You Know”). Most moving of all may be “Knowing French,” made up of letters written by an octogenarian to “Mr. Novelist Barnes.” The writer is living in an old folks’ home (an “Old Folkery”), but she demonstrates such brio, pizzazz, introspection, and natural learnedness—all as she’s about to die—that no reader can help but love her.
Fine stories, well rounded and grounded. Six of the eleven have appeared in The New Yorker.