Bill Clinton’s Imaginary Friends, Updike Pop Into U.K. Fiction

The cover jacket of "Pulse" by Julian Barnes. Source: Random House via Bloomberg

The short stories in Julian Barnes’s new collection, “Pulse,” are animated by currents both physical and metaphysical.

In “Harmony” -- a story so fully imagined that it gestures toward a novel -- an 18th-century doctor endeavors to cure a young pianist’s blindness using magnets.

“Sleeping With John Updike” eavesdrops on the tetchy chatter of two aging novelists, which resonates with all sorts of unspoken truths.

Unsurprisingly, given that Barnes’s wife died in 2008, love and loss emerge as preoccupations. “Marriage Lines” tracks a man’s pilgrimage to the Scottish island where he had always spent holidays with his late wife. A scant eight pages, this is a moving tale of quiet desolation.

These 14 elegant stories show off Barnes’s dexterity. They feature dryly entertaining apercus (“Bravado rarely worked with clothes,” one woman notes of another’s dress sense) and telling observations (note the marijuana perched beside the parmesan in the middle-aged character’s fridge). Pulsing beneath this manicured surface, however, is real depth of feeling.

(Cape, 228 pages, 16.99 pounds. To be published in the U.S. by Knopf on May 3.)

As a young man traveling to England aboard the SS United States, the hero of Linda Grant’s fifth novel meets a fellow Rhodes Scholar. Stephen Newman is fascinated by his countryman’s ease with the opposite sex: The guy “just had to turn to a girl and smile and she was all goose-bumps.”

Ordinary Life

Twenty-five years later, Stephen’s shipboard companion, Bill Clinton, is elected president of the United States. The trajectory of Stephen’s own life is comparatively ordinary, and that is precisely what interests Grant.

“We Had It So Good” describes the dimming of baby-boomer dreams as responsibility and respectability take over.

Born in sunny California, Stephen, a chemistry whiz, falls in with an anarchist crowd at Oxford and starts an LSD factory. Later, to dodge the draft, he marries his red-headed Oxford girlfriend and moves with her to a London squat. Using the pseudonym “Doc California,” he writes a column about drugs for an underground newspaper, which leads to legitimate science writing and a career producing documentaries for the BBC.

Several hundred pages later, after 9/11 and a calamity at the heart of his family, Stephen will be left squinting up at a gray London sky, wondering how he came to be a grandfather with a once-ramshackle London house that is now worth millions.

Orange Prize

Grant is an Orange Prize winner and Man Booker Prize finalist. This latest novel is lighter on plot than its predecessors, and purposefully sidesteps dramatic flashpoints to dwell on small details.

Stephen takes to wearing caps from the Gap, rebelling against Englishness even as he frets about harmful solar rays. These minor actions, Grant suggests, are what ultimately define a life.

(Virago, 344 pages, 14.99 pounds. To be published in the U.S. by Scribner on April 26.)

Carol Topolski’s “Do No Harm” paints a portrait of a monster who also happens to be a stellar gynecologist.

Virginia Denham is a loner, respected rather than liked. Her only friend is of the invisible kind, though there is nothing childish about their games, which require sharp knives and rubber sheets.

Having grown up starved of love, Virginia plugs the void with food, returning home from her London hospital to whip up feasts whose sophistication fails to disguise her bulimic urges.

Yorkshire Ripper

Don’t expect subtlety from this fidgety novel, which flits back and forth from Virginia’s World War II-era childhood to the 1970s, when a serial killer known as the Yorkshire Ripper stalks northern England. Sections told from the viewpoint of other characters -- Virginia’s selfish mother, a Kashmiri colleague -- are spliced throughout, making for a muddled read.

The same plot might have been spun as a less ambitious yet genuinely creepy thriller. Instead, a gruesome murder is buried beneath bulky themes such as fetishism, immigration and the maternal bond, and has been all but forgotten by the time Topolski gets around to the big reveal.

(Fig Tree, 336 pages, 12.99 pounds.)

(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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