Book Review: 2011 Winner: Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending

The_Sense_Of_An_EndingRating: 5
The Sense of an Ending
A Novella by Julian Barnes
2011 / 150 Pages

The Setup: The story of a man coming to terms with the mutable past, Julian Barnes’s new novel is laced with his trademark precision, dexterity and insight. It is the work of one of the world’s most distinguished writers.

Tony Webster and his clique first met Adrian Finn at school. Sex-hungry and book-hungry, they navigated the girl drought of gawky adolescence together, trading in affectations, in-jokes, rumour and wit. Maybe Adrian was a little more serious than the others, certainly more intelligent, but they swore to stay friends forever. Until Adrian’s life took a turn into tragedy, and all of them, especially Tony, moved on and did their best to forget.

Now Tony is in middle age. He’s had a career and a marriage, a calm divorce. He gets along nicely, he thinks, with his one child, a daughter, and even with his ex-wife. He’s certainly never tried to hurt anybody. Memory, though, is imperfect. It can always throw up surprises, as a lawyer’s letter is about to prove. The unexpected bequest conveyed by that letter leads Tony on a dogged search through a past suddenly turned murky. And how do you carry on, contentedly, when events conspire to upset all your vaunted truths? (from the hardcover edition)

This review originally appeared on Opinionless on 10/11/2011

Brilliantly written and expertly crafted. That’s how’d I’d quickly sum up The Sense of an Ending. In fact it’s so good that it amazes me that I’ve never read anything by Julian Barnes before. If I were hard pressed to continue raving about this short novella, and thus attempted to compare Barnes to other novelists I greatly enjoy reading, I would have no choice but to mention Jonathan Coe (think characters determined on self-examination and obsessed with how the world views them like Maxwell Sim and Robin Grant, but less focused on the funny aspects) and Paul Murray (think the schoolboy bonds of friendship from Skippy Dies, but turn back the dial to the 60s.) This, my friends, is the book that should ultimately win the coveted Man Booker award this year…or is it? Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues certainly is worthy contender as well.

Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Sixty-something Tony Webster is the epitome of the unreliable narrator and right from the get go he fully admits and embraces this fact. When a woman he met only once, the mother of an ex-girlfriend from long ago, passes away and bequeaths to him money and the diary of one of his old high school friends, Tony is perplexed. Why this sum of money and how did she come to possess this most personal and precious of items?

He’s convinced that the answers to these questions lie somewhere in his past and so he begins an examination into the tail-end of his high-school years, through his early college days where he first met and started dating the woman’s daughter, a strange, seemingly aloof girl named Veronica.

What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you witnessed.

Time has a funny way of twisting and distorting our memories, but it’s not the only culprit. Each of us has experienced that situation in our life where we’re stuck replaying a key moment over and over in our head until we can properly reshape and retool it into something that justifies our actions and puts us clearly on the right side of things, even if the actual facts of the event in question support the suggestion that we were flat out wrong. Perhaps this form of self-correction is a defense mechanism, a way to make ourselves feel better about what we’ve done and assuage the guilt so we can continue moving forward with our life without having to be overwhelmed by regret. Regardless of the reasons, memory is an imperfect science.

We all end up belonging to the same category, the non-young.

So Tony embarks on his journey of self-discovery recalling tidbits from his past that may be bad, but overall not THAT bad, until he’s confronted with a piece of cold, hard evidence that is irrefutable, something that he can’t simply explain away or somehow shift the burden from. How does he react to the realization that his actions were obviously inappropriate? How does he reconcile his former self with the person he is today? Has he even changed at all?

You just don’t get it, do you? You never did, and you never will.

Because Tony is unreliable narrator things aren’t always what they seem. Even when you think you know where the novella is headed, you don’t, and even when it reaches its climax and all is supposedly explained, it isn’t. This might be frustrating to some, but it feels like a brilliant twist to me.

As a reader, how closely have you identified with Tony? How much of what you’ve read to do you accurately remember? Have you reshaped what you’ve read to work in Tony’s favor in order to support your opinion of him? Have you tainted his already imperfect recollections with your own muddled history of what you interpreted to have happened and reshaped it based on your own similar personal experiences? Are you so desperate for a resolution that you’ve jumped to conclusions that aren’t necessarily true?

If there’s one thing in life that’s clear it’s that we all have a different definition when it comes to the meaning of truth and in this way Barnes novella accurately mirrors life. As the Welsh politician Aneurin Bevan famously said: “This is my truth, now tell me yours.” There are no large universal truths believed by all, only personal ones. When it comes right down to it, the truth is what we each make of it, and most of it is lies.


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