The Sense of an Ending
By: Julian Barnes
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?
This book had been on my radar since it won the Man Booker Prize for 2011. I’m slowly making my way with reading the winners and those short-listed (emphasis on slowly) but the premise of this novel caught my attention. I’m glad I finally got around to reading it. I want to lay out my thoughts about this novel so this entry is more a commentary than a review; as such, major spoilers if you haven’t read the book at all. I will do my best to avoid mentioning in detail the major plot points but I am discussing the themes so feel free to skip to the end of the entry to know my overall recommendation for it ^_~
I honestly don’t know where to start with this novel, my mind was honestly blown by this. The prose is very much reminiscent of Ian McEwan’s for me, the sharp observations and the fluidity of the prose. It’s written in first person from Tony’s perspective and it not only reflects the education and upbringing that Tony had and the period he grew up in but it’s also quite intimate, it’s like he’s sitting right in front of me and telling me his story.
First and foremost this novel to me is a wonderful, quiet and thoughtful meditation on the values and perceptions we have on life and the expectations we peg on it: the romanticism, the innocent ideas that we carry when we were younger but also how life can cruelly break down those ideas, show us otherwise what else life is–complicated, messy, not as lofty as we supposed it was or it should be–and growing up. That sounds rather pessimistic–I would like to think I subscribe to the idea that life can still contain some of those values we carried growing up–but the novel nonetheless shows ideas and gradual shifts that I think everyone experiences at one point in their lives or another. The novel for me reinforces the idea that school is a shelter for such ideas, musings and abstractions–the way Tony and his friends theorised and philosophise is both romantic and reminiscent on some level of my university years (though more on the historical side than philosophical side)–and it doesn’t hold up as well once you get out in the real world. The real world’s messy.
There is a story that slowly builds up in the first part of the novel and expands in the second half. It’s engaging because it makes the reader wonder exactly what happened, why things turned out the way that they did. It also raises the question of responsibility and the extent of responsibility a person can have over their own actions and the consequences. I personally think that Tony cannot shoulder the full responsibility over Adrian’s death and the way that things had turned out in the last few months of Adrian’s life; yes, Tony was influential for Adrian turning away from Veronica but it was still Adrian’s decision, Adrian was the one in control of his actions leading up to the end. But he can’t be responsible for everyone. The story is interesting because it raises the question to what extent does agency play a role in shouldering the responsibility (as an aside, while it works for the drama of the story, it is a little freakish how things turned out the way that it did and somewhat close to that hurtful letter Tony wrote years ago). The whole situation also emphasises how human everyone is–Tony and the way he lashed out in hurt and humiliation, Adrian and how things ended up with Veronica. The knowledge hurts, but it sadly happens.
Also, while I know we’re reading Tony’s story from his perspective complete with his observations and feelings, but I just could not like Veronica even after the revelation is revealed. Again, we’re seeing everything from Tony’s lens but I could not understand Veronica: why stay with him as long as she did back in university, why entertain his emails and queries if she hated him all this time? I get it if it’s for revenge but other than that it just seemed as though she played her part in the plot to get Tony moving and that was it. And all the cryptic sentences–even I was getting frustrated at the end.
On another level I wonder if this novel serves as something of a commentary on the average-ness that has emerged in society (this is me musing now). Tony seemed to have all this potential, all these possibilities. Sure, he wasn’t as brilliant as Adrian but he aspired to be this person–did he merely end up as wasted potential, a result of his ability to just get through things? He seemed contented by the way his life turned out all in all (though it’s rather lonely; he is a fairly odd character so he didn’t seem to have minded it so much). Could this novel serve as a warning to those not firm of character?
On a more tangible level, I like how the novel in all touches on the notion of memory and how selective we can be about it: we can block out certain memories because they’re too painful or humiliating, we can circumvent it, alter our pasts a little not only to cope but to shape our present personalities. Tony calls it his survival technique but it’s a technique that we all have. Given that we do it at different levels at different times, I guess the “truth” comes out sooner or later, but it all depends. Like the book does, it raises the question then at the notion of history–world history, written history and personal history–and how objective we can really be with it.
Overall The Sense of an Ending is a poignant novel that looks at the power of memory, the decisions we make, the relationships we have, the ideas we hold in the face of age and maturity and the extent of responsibility. It’s gorgeously written that grabs you from the first page (and a lot of great quotes throughout). I highly recommend this novel to anyone looking for a quiet but introspective read.