Book Review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

(I must be in Rome now. Probably ready to be home again.)

I don’t remember how I heard about this novel. Maybe Goodreads or someone may have mentioned it in a blog or a comment to a blog. Whenever I see an opinion about a book, that it is “beautifully written”, I’m intrigued and if it’s even remotely within my genre comfort zone, I investigate.

The Sense of an Ending was short-listed for the 2011 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, which is awarded each year for the best original full-length novel, written in the English language, by a citizen of the Commonwealth of Nations, Ireland, or Zimbabwe. It is a very prestigious award, and the winner can be assured of international success. It is a mark of distinction to be included in the shortlist, or even to be nominated for the longlist.

The novel takes place over a span of forty years, beginning in the sixties up to the present. Now I’m really intrigued, because that is exactly the time frame for my own novels. It’s written in first person POV, which is probably my favorite, and the main character is a very likable, if a somewhat dull, boy/man.

The first section is the backstory, in the sixties, and is a very amusing, frank account of coming-of-age as only men can do it. Men seem to be so forthright about that time in their lives when they write about it, I often wish I could enjoy the same candor.

The story takes place in London, so notwithstanding the subtle language differences as written by an English author, it is, in fact, “beautifully written”, and comedic and insightful, yet puzzling. Tony is constantly told that “he just doesn’t get it” and I must admit, I didn’t get it either, and still don’t and I think the author probably intended it that way. It’s one of those stories where, once you know how it ends, you figure out what probably happened to cause it to end the way it did.

Tony is involved with a girl, who is a PITA when she’s young, and after she comes back into his life forty years later, it’s clear she hasn’t improved, and in fact is worse than that, as if her life between then and now has been filled with sadness and hard times or both.

The book starts out with the sixties timeframe for less than half, then jumps to present day, with Tony narrating what has happened to him, as he remembers it. This is an important point because, memory, or lack of, or imperfect, is a big part of the story. How much of what we remember is true, and how much is what we have always told ourselves is true, and embellished and exaggerated as time goes on? How much of memory is what we wished had happened, so over time it morphs into being that way?

Here are some of Tony’s thoughts about memory:

  • Again, I must stress that this is my reading now of what happened then. Or rather, my memory now of my reading then of what was happening at the time.
  • What you fail to do is look ahead, and then imagine yourself looking back from that future point. Learning the new emotions that time brings. Discovering, for example, that as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been.
  • We live with such easy assumptions, don’t we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it’s all much odder than this. Who was it said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it’s not convenient — it’s not useful — to believe this: it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.
  • How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but — mainly — to ourselves.

In the present day part, we discover that Tony had written a letter to a friend, which seemed out of character for him, in that it was cruel and unnecessary. This part bothered me, that he would do such a thing and I didn’t think it rang true. Also, did anyone use the term “control freak” during the sixties? I am always very careful of this, in my writing, did they really say this or that back then? Because, language has changed over the years and phrases we use commonly now weren’t necessarily used back then.

The letter was my main issue, I can forgive the control freak part, but it seemed like we should have been given more of the answers than we were. Everything was a bit of a puzzle. And the woman, Victoria, who kept saying he didn’t get it, I wanted to tell her, of course he didn’t get it! How could he? He wasn’t privy to the information.

But it was an enjoyable read, and once I had read it, I discovered that I needed to read it again, knowing what I now knew and when I did that, it seemed less puzzling but still, it’s clear it has been left to the reader to figure out what happened.

The observations made by Tony are priceless, and I’ve included some here that I marked while reading.

  • Most people didn’t experience “the sixties” until the seventies. Which meant, logically, that most people in the sixties were still experiencing the fifties— or, in my case, bits of both decades side by side. Which made things rather confusing.
  • There’s nothing wrong with being a genius who can fascinate the young. Rather, there’s something wrong with the young who can’t be fascinated by a genius.
  • It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.
  • What did I know of life, I who had lived so carefully? Who had neither won nor lost, but just let life happen to him? Who had the usual ambitions and settled all too quickly for them not being realised? Who avoided being hurt and called it a capacity for survival? Who paid the bills, stayed on good terms with everyone as far as possible, for whom ecstasy and despair soon became just words once read in novels? One whose self-rebukes never really inflicted pain? Well, there was all this to reflect upon, while I endured a special kind of remorse: a hurt inflicted at long last on one who always thought he knew how to avoid being hurt — and inflicted for precisely that reason.

I would recommend this book to anyone. It’s a short read, can be done in one sitting. It is an example of how an everyman, who pictures himself as uninteresting, boring even, is far from it. As if every life has had interest and drama along the way, even if you don’t remember that it did.

8 thoughts on “Book Review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

  1. Reading your review, I want to read the book again.
    Hoping you will have some time when you will be back from your trip to consider reviewing my novel, starting in the same time period as this work. Not that I would compare my skills as a writer with Julian Barnes, but one has to start somewhere ….
    Johanna van Zanten

    • Johanna, I haven’t forgotten about our review swap. I will contact you as soon as I get back. The time period was also of interest to me, since my stories take place in the sixties through present. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Your reviews are so thorough. I too give much thought to ‘language’ of different time era’s. Being a woman of the sixties, I do not believe we ever said ‘control freak’ at that time. It sounds like a very introspective type of a book. Interesting!
    Hope you’re enjoying your trip!
    June Collins

    • June, I just received a comment on this older post and saw that I had not replied to your comment, which is something that I always do. Uh! Thanks for saying my reviews are thorough, I sometimes see the reviews of others and think – that is so good, why didn’t I realize that, so I’m glad to hear it.

      I did enjoy the trip, except for the pickpocket part.

  3. Hi Lynn, How are you? Thanks for reminding me to read this book. It actually won the Man Booker in the end; the prize is the Commonwealth equivalent of the Pulitzer so it receives lots of attention in Commonwealth countries such as Australia and Canada. My all time favourite (or favorite!) Man Booker winner was The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood.

  4. Hi Benison, I have been wondering about you too, probably busy with your projects. I am in the last week of a four-week holiday, London (with a short side trip to Paris) and Rome. Just catching up with blogs that I follow and comments received,

    This really is a wonderfully written novel, as you can probably tell by the excerpts I have included, and these are just an example. I am going to check out your recommendation of The Blind Assassin. Thanks for stopping by, and hope everything is okay in your hemisphere.

  5. I just read this book, based on your review. I liked it a lot, but had the same issues with it that you did. I felt betrayed, since it was simply illogical for Victoria to expect him to “get it,” and the letter was out of character. I also thought Adrian’s character needed further development. But it was well written and reflective. I admired it sufficiently to take another Barnes book from the library, which I am just starting: Arthur & George.

    • Nancy, I think in the case of this novel, I accepted a lot of what I considered to be flaws in favor of the beautiful writing. I really did love the internal dialogue of Tony. I think you are right about Adrian, we really didn’t know much about him. Let me know about Arthur & George!

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