cover image Cross Channel: Stories

Cross Channel: Stories

Julian Barnes. Alfred A. Knopf, $21 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-679-44691-0

On the heels of Barnes's essay collection Letters from London, which included a searing account of Britain's xenophobic anxiety over 1994's ceremonial opening of the ""Chunnel,"" comes this wonderfully wry short-story collection (his first) chronicling Britain's vexed relations with the French over the last 300 years. By turns dolorously indignant and wickedly funny, these 10 stories depict the manners, prejudices and historical purview of Brits traveling or living in France. The narrator of ""The Experiment,"" a giddy literary mystery reminiscent of the author's novel Flaubert's Parrot, speculates about whether his hapless Uncle Freddy was an unnamed participant in Andre Breton's ""famously unplatonic"" sexual experiments. In ""Evermore,"" a British proofreader, grieving 50 years later for the brother she lost in WW I, travels among the neglected French burial grounds, despairing over Europe's tendency to forget its own recent history. The closing story, ""Tunnel,"" a thinly autobiographical account of a 60-ish man riding the Eurostar train directly from London to Paris in the year 2015 and reflecting on a life's worth of traveling, gracefully ties together the collection. Other pieces, like the somber ""Dragons,"" about soldiers occupying a Huguenot village in the 17th century, and ""Brambilla,"" a vernacular narrative by a working-class cyclist riding in the Tour de France, lack the dry, hectoring wit that enlivens most of the work here. But the entirety reads like an unusually fine Baedeker, exploring with great polish and nuance the vagaries of culture and personality that divide two unlikely bedfellows in an increasingly homogenous European community. (Mar.)