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.