The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes book cover
The Sense of an Ending (2011) is Julian Barnes’s Booker prize-winning exploration of time and memory. A short novel, The Sense of the Ending follows the life of Tony Webster through his time as a pseudo-intellectual adolescent and later as his looks back at his former self and his life. The young Tony was part of a four-set at school with Alex, Colin and the incisively intelligent, Adrian. The four engage in schoolyard philosophising, but begin to drift apart when they each set off for different universities. When Adrian, now a student at Cambridge, begins to date the enigmatic but difficult, Veronica, Tony’s ex-girlfriend, the group disintegrates altogether, with Tony writing Adrian and Veronica a bile-filled letter expressing his opinion of them both. After graduation Tony goes travelling in America, and it’s here that the news of Adrian’s suicide reaches him. Seen as a philosophical act by one who has rejected the premise of life, the suicide fails to bring the group back together, and Tony continues on to lead an unextraordinary life. On retirement, Tony, now a divorcee and father to one married daughter, is forced to look back on his youth after he receives an unexpected bequest. As he is drawn back into Veronica’s world, he begins to question his own perception of history and, in line with Veronica’s consistent admonishments, attempts to ‘get it’.

The idea that memory is an entirely subjective concept, distorted by time and subsequent events, is visited repeatedly, and touches on something very poignant about human psychology and the way we subconsciously doctor our personal history to make it congruent with our own self-perception and subjective reality. The extent to which each of us must take responsibility for the lives and decisions of others is also discussed, with Tony forming part of an equation that brought about tragedy, but only a small part. That the narrative skipped over some of forty years of Tony’s life illustrates how little of significance Tony achieved during those years, and there’s a pathos and poignancy to his character as he looks back to the unadventurous and hollow life he has led, which will strike a chord with many.

The Sense of an Ending is tightly-plotted and comfortably concise. There is a slightly mechanical sense to the writing, but one quickly overcomes this. For a novel that feels a little straight-forward in style, The Sense of an Ending really grabs one’s attention and demands to be read in a sitting. The neat use of imagery, particularly the time/water parallel with reference to the Severn Bore and the egg broken by Veronica’s mother foreshadowing her later tragedy, is well-executed, if not the most subtle part of the novel. If one was to make a criticism of the style, it would be that the build-up to the final revelation feels a little contrived, with a great deal of dramatic, but slightly silly, circumlocution. The characters themselves are all entirely ordinary. They possess no special qualities and are thrust into barely exceptional circumstances. Clearly Barnes is writing the human condition as a general rule. As a narrator, Tony’s claims to have remembered only part of his past at times feels ingenuous - particularly based on the baroness of the rest of his life, and the reader is left to question whether his unreliability is as a consequence of natural human decay, or if he is being selectively honest with the reader.

The letter which Tony sends to Veronica and Adrian is likely a reflection of the infamous letter that Barnes sent his then friend, Martin Amis, following their falling out, and there is definitely a sense of atonement and self-contemplation present in the novel. The Ending of the title can be read as either an allusion to death, or as the conclusion to episodes in one’s life; as one draws closer to the ultimate ending, the latter becomes more important: the making sense of one’s life. At the novel’s close Tony apportions a wholly unreasonable amount of blame on his own head and it’s hard to grasp whether he believes in personal responsibility to this extent, or whether he simply believes himself to be responsible for all bad things – after all he was but a small part of the equation that equalled tragedy and could not be responsible for the actions and decisions of others. This, in combination with the fact that he could never really have been expected to ‘get it’, leave a strange sense, almost as though one is still only privy to part of the facts - that history has not been fully related - and in this way it is the reader who lacks the sense of an ending.

This is a tidy little book, although it feels more like the work of a well-ordered creative writing student, than an experienced novelist; everything is terribly neat and carefully plotted, and the devices used are good but often lack subtlety. A good read, but not necessarily what I'd expected.

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