Wednesday 24 August 2011 7:04 pm

Barnes thrills with English storytelling at its terse best

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Jonathan Cape, £12.99

IN the past, I have found Julian Barnes – most famously author of Flaubert’s Parrot – less tractable than his contemporaries. If given the choice between Ian McEwan – of whose even-shorter novella On Chesil Beach this book reminds me – or Martin Amis, I’d have always gone for the latter two.

But with The Sense of An Ending, this has changed. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older and the book deals with time and memory and the ways in which the two meet and clash over history.

Barnes’s narrator is a sixty something man who has lived “a quiet life”. There’s nothing extraordinary about Tony Webster – not his schooldays, his university career, job, wife, divorce or daughter. But he does cast an eye to the past in a more ruminative way than most and we know he has been interested in history and its recording since he was a teenager.

The story begins in Tony’s schooldays in the 1960s (which were more like the 1950s for most people, as he points out). It recalls his small group of friends, elevated by the arrival of the particularly deep-thinking, Cambridge scholarship-winning Adrian Finn. The friends have intellectual arguments and say things like: “That’s philosophically self-evident” to each other – it’s a different world from today, of course, where school friends would be more likely to compare vomiting stories from big nights out.

Adrian is the one they all want to impress: unlike them, his seriousness is rarely of a mock variety.

Anyway, the friends drift apart at university, where Tony divides his time between work and a waiflike girlfriend who withholds sex, perhaps meanly, throughout the year they are together.

Time passes and a shocking event shakes the group of school friends. But they forget, and Tony gets on with his life, his wife, his work, his interests.

Years later, out of nowhere, a letter arrives bearing a very strange bequest. And so, half way through a story that appears almost as elegiacally humdrum as could be, Tony realises, as do we, that perhaps events at school and university were slightly different than he remembers them, or perceived them at the time. Or – in a formulation typical of the book – remembers to have perceived them.

Only an author of Barnes’s calibre could pull of that most tricky of beasts: the micro-tale of an English middle class man, measuredly telling his own story in the least exotic setting imaginable: the Home Counties. But under Barnes’s pen, the banality of the surroundings become the perfect backdrop for the poignancy of the thoughts and events being described. This is a gem of a book: tight and dense and chilling.

Corvus £7.99

DOES the name C.J. Box sound familiar to you? Perhaps not, as the Wyoming-dwelling, cowboy hat sporting bestselling writer has been a US hit for some time, but is only now being pushed on this side of the pond.

If you do know of Box, you’ll know of him for his Joe Pickett series, from which Back of Beyond is a notable break. Fans of Joe won’t be disappointed, though, with this typically heavy-breathing thriller involving murder and the Wild West. Box is more than qualified to write about skullduggery in the American wilds: he’s been a ranch hand, surveyor, fishing guide and small town newspaper reporter (and now, funnily enough, runs a tourism business with his wife).

In Back of Beyond, we find a classic hero (troubled, drinking problem) faced with murder. Said hero is one Detective Cody Hoyt (he would be called that), who leads the way through a dangerous, murky cover-up with courage, intuition and a nifty way with juicy moral dilemmas.

As for the murder and Hoyt’s motive for solving it: the murderee is Hoyt’s own AA sponsor (see? Told you we have a troubled hero) – burnt to a cinder in his own wilderness shack.

At first it appears to be an accident, but a a computer hard-drive recovered from the scene of the death suggests that something more sinister is going on, and leads Cody on a trip to Yellowstone National Park – where his own son happens to be heading. Could Hoyt Jr be next?

A surprisingly complex but rewarding plot answers this and thousands of other questions: we dare you to try to figure out the mystery before the end. Grab this book for any late-summer holidays or for a bit of escapism if your summer break has been and gone.

Quercus, £18.99

THERE’S nothing appealing about the cover of The Invisible Ones: a watery infinity with dead trees and a lone, abandoned rowboat in the foreground. All is grey. Unfortunately, it’s a rather fitting cover for a book that just doesn’t seem to have the verve and imagination required of literary thrillers.

Why bother mentioning it then? Because Stef Penney’s previous outing, The Tenderness of Wolves, won awards and topped bestseller lists. But despite borrowing more than a few of that book’s ideas and flourishes, the setting has switched for the worse: goodbye Canada, hello British caravan park.

But it’s well-written and the plot isn’t without interest. Rose Janko, who married into a traveling gypsy family, has been missing for seven years. Enter Ray Lovell, a small-time PI whose insiders’ card is that he is of gypsy descent himself. Yet even that won’t melt the Jankos, who seem curiously resistant to finding out the truth about Rose.

If you’re new to Penney, you may enjoy this. If you read and liked The Tenderness of Wolves, you’re likely to be disappointed.