How do we seize the past?...We read, we learn, we ask, we remember...and then a casual detail shifts everything." Those words, spoken by the narrator of Barnes's brilliant 1985 novel, Flaubert's Parrot, might well describe this collection of short stories revolving around assorted Britons—railway workers, artists, cyclists—who have crossed the Channel during the last 300 years. There seems to be no thread that connects these tales until Barnes plays his trump card: The stories are told by the hero of the final piece, an Englishman sifting through his memories on the Lon-don-to-Paris train in the year 2015.
The literary trickery here presents problems. Only half the stories stand on their own and manage to limn the lives—shattered or fulfilled—with affecting grace. There are all manner of satisfying connections the reader can make after reaching Channel's end, but it's a pity the crossing itself is not equally rewarding. (Knopf, $21)