By Julian Barnes
Julian Barnes is feeling old, and you will be too by the time you finish his new collection of short fiction. Each tale turns on the “battle against the tabooing of death,” as a nursing home inmate puts it in “Knowing French,” a story told through characters’ correspondence. Barnes describes the realities of aging with precision and a knack for matching narrative device to psychological reality: Three haircuts over a lifetime mark the transit of one man’s vanity and self-confidence, and the inner monologue of a cantankerous concertgoer obsessed by coughing and candy wrappers depicts a petty fixation spiraling toward violence. Stories that map the disjointed patterns of a calcifying mind are juxtaposed with others told from the point of view of the not-yet-old. Rattled by his father’s late-life infidelity, a son reconsiders their tidy suburban past: “Behind my father’s reticence and winks … was there panic and mortal terror? Or is this a stupid question? Is anyone spared mortal terror?” Barnes takes that question straight on in this brave, well-crafted book.