Novel of the week

Love, etc

Julian Barnes <em>Cape, 250pp, £15.99</em>

ISBN 0224065297

Julian Barnes has decided to examine once again the love triangle he laid out nine years ago in Talking it Over. The sensible but vaguely creepy Stuart returns to haunt his ex-wife Gillian and her replacement husband, Oliver. The power balance has altered - Stuart has made his fortune in organic groceries, while Oliver is still writing unfilmable screenplays and living off the modest income that Gillian earns as a picture restorer.

When last heard of, the happy couple were settled in an idyllic French village. But they had to sell up and leave because of the scandal created by the rather implausible scene at the end of Talking it Over, when Gillian picked a fight with Oliver in the street to convince the spying Stuart (who didn't know she knew he was there) that he didn't have much to feel jealous about.

French rural property prices do not keep pace with the London market, so Gillian, Oliver and their two daughters are now obliged to live in a small basement in a grotty corner of Stoke Newington. Stuart has a mansion flat in St John's Wood but, weirdly, he still owns the big house that he and Gillian used to share. He moves out the tenants, lets the place to Gillian and Oliver, and keeps coming round to put up shelves or cook dinner. He also hires Oliver as a van driver. For some reason, the couple don't suspect that good old Stuart is up to something.

As before, the characters address the reader directly to offer their thoughts on life and their conflicting accounts of various episodes. On the one hand, this is a demanding technique, because the writer has to develop and sustain distinctive voices - in this case, for the three principal characters, the children, Gillian's parents, Stuart's second ex-wife and so on. On the other hand, this method offers a certain scope for laziness. Barnes can make limp, adolescent observations and pass them off as part of the characterisation, thus not the author's fault at all.

Sometimes this is OK. Oliver asks: "If they're called off-road vehicles, why are so many of them on the fucking road?" He clearly thinks he's being original, and we are meant to understand that he deludes himself. But sometimes this is a problem. Oliver spends more than two pages rhapsodising over the aptness and universal relevance of an epithet that Stuart happens to use when discussing GM crops: "the law of unintended effect". Or what you and I know as the law of unintended consequences. The slight garbling suggests that Barnes may genuinely share Oliver's unfamiliarity with the term, unless the whole passage is an arch joke along the lines of the Python sketch about the man who has never heard of the expression "No time to lose". Either way, it's weak.

Stuart, meanwhile, is baffled by Oliver's use of "No hard feelings" when alluding to their past antagonism. Stuart asks Gillian's mother, with whom he remains in touch, what on earth the implicitly preferred "soft feelings" are supposed to be. Again, Barnes makes a curiously heavy meal of this. Later, Gillian's mother says: "Soft feelings. That was a good phrase, no?" Kingsley Amis had a rule that no character should laugh at another character's jokes. It seems equally true that no character should praise another character's phrase-making. Or, indeed, its own. Gillian, recalling how she dumped Stuart immediately after marrying him, says: "Being in love makes you liable to fall in love. Isn't that a terrible paradox? Isn't that a terrible truth?" All of the trio, now in their forties, exhibit this callow, self-conscious disillusionment, more typical of undergraduates. They are continually amazed that love is not the answer to all ills and that the cliches of received wisdom are not always true.

If this is the point - that even in middle age most of us are less mature than we like to think - it may be a fair one. But it's hard to tell whether this is the point. The novel is readable and intelligent, yet ultimately quite depressing, and its tone of primal gloom seems heartfelt, an attribute not only of the characters, but of the work itself.