Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Book Review: The Sense of an Ending - Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending
Julian Barnes
Alfred a Knopf, 2011

Julian Barnes’ fourteenth book, The Sense of an Ending, is the recent winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize. It has been described as a novel for grown-ups. The simplest and most straightforward of stories on the surface, but of a kind which turns back on itself and forces you to reflect on your own behaviour and your own life.

The writing is light, often funny and always graceful and observant. And this latter point is the real issue. While acute observation of others is the essence of the story, the narrator (Tony Wheeler) spectacularly fails to notice his own lack of insight.

And it is not that he is dishonest about himself. Part of the real charm of the narrator is that he can be intensely insightful about his own failings and flaws - and especially about his own insecurities. But he has missed the key point about his first and most serious relationship, with the enigmatic and tempestuous Veronica Ford. He cannot understand, (Veronica says to him on more than one occasion). He never did, she tells him, and he never will. Tony and Veronica break up eventually – however, as he observes: “the first experience of love, even if it doesn’t work out - perhaps especially when it doesn’t work out - promises that here is the thing that validates, that vindicates life.”

Tony is now 60 years old, and circumstances mean that he has needed to reflect deeply on his life. As a bright teenager, with bright friends, he was happy enough. The friends become students - “book-hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, anarchistic”. They were “pretentious - what else is youth for?” One amongst them, the deepest thinker and perhaps the most troubled, Adrian Finn, is the one who is, in a shadowy way, the friend who remains most connected to him and intertwined with his life. Tony often recalls the depths and complexity of Adrian’s responses to both situations and questions. Adrian kills himself, and this is the catalysts for the serious introspection in the narrator.

Tony wants (and has achieved) a quiet, and fairly untroubled life. While he might admire from a distance the tortured philosophical path of his friend, he did not covet it. He ends up marrying Margaret, a stable, ordinary, caring woman. They had a child and eventually separated, not because of any particular conflict, but because the relationship just became unnecessary.

And now, at this age, the death of his friend and the bequest of his diary to him, by Veronica’s mother, has meant that he has needed to re-examine the things that he remembers and match them to the things that actually happened. “[W]hat you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed,” he concludes. Such are the vagaries of age and the passage of time.

He meets up with Veronica again. It takes the form of something quite close to a courtship, but all the old fixtures of their failed relationship are present, standing in the wings. He tells Veronica about his life. She tells him nothing of hers. He makes conclusions - many conclusions about her, which are all hopelessly short of the mark. When, finally, the truth becomes clear to him, he realizes his own manipulation of circumstance, history and memory.

The book is good reading. You need to understand the culture of British male reserve coupled with a concomitant sense of assumption. But if you do, it is a book that will really entrance you. And indeed, it may make you seriously consider yourself and your own re-making of history. We all do it, after all.


  1. The plot is perfectly paced and I do not agree with some reviewers that Tony is a totally unsympathetic character - he is very ordinary, but it is this very quality which makes us empathise with him, the knowledge also that we are all capable of darker acts, the consequences of which we may not always appreciate at the time we commit them. I really did not want the book to end, but the ending is to my mind perfect.

    Although Barnes solves the plot for us, and makes "a sense of the ending", explaining Adrian's death, the end of his quest to discover the truth, and his self knowledge about his own future, we are still left asking questions, seeking to understand the whys and hows and thinking about the interplay between his characters. I liked that about the book - with so many book endings you say -"Well, that is that", and sometimes there is a feeling of anticlimax, but this actually leaves one with some work to do at the end!

    1. How right, I think, you are Eesti. For me, one of the most remarkable things about this book, is that I still remember it, in some detail, months after having read it. And it certainly made me consider my own actions in my own relationships.