The Sense of an Ending
By Julian Barnes
From a reviewers standpoint, it's probably not a good idea to read an author for the first time if the book you choose to read has won the Booker Prize. Most importantly, it sets the reviewer up for possible disappointment should they reach into said author's back catalog to find other titles (I say possible disappointment because, as we all know, just because a novel wins a Booker Prize does not mean it is the best novel ever written by that author... but it's probably a good bet). But only slightly less important is the manner in which the reviewer is able to accurately review the novel in relation to their work prior. Of course, even the most voracious reviewers can't possibly read everything by everyone, so these things have to be taken with a grain of salt.
A Sense of an Ending is Julian Barne's 11th novel. It won the Man Booker Prize in 2011. It is the first novel that I have ever read by Julian Barnes. I have read exactly zero titles from the 2011 Booker shortlist (though I've had Half Blood Blues on my shelf for a dogs age). How exactly do I express myself about this novel? It's good. Really good. Of course it is. It won the Booker Prize. Did I mention that? You don't get nominated for the Booker Prize unless your novel has some artistic merit (and I'm going to ignore the hairsplitting nonsense coming from the literati in their dusty offices. Put them in a room full of Cathy Lamb novels for a year and see what they think of Julian Barnes after that). So I'm going to try and make sense of his novel as a stand alone novel as opposed to a piece in a larger body of work or as a nominee for the award that it won. I am trying, but I haven't read everything.... yet.
The Sense of an Ending is a deeply introspective look into the past of Tony Webster, a retired man living alone somewhere in London. He has lead a relatively mediocre life (what is it with me and novels about mediocrity lately? I'm going to steer away from that theme this time around. Promise). Job, marriage, child, divorce. He has a past, and spends a good deal of the novel recalling the trivial moments of youth in the days leading up to his life's one great tragedy.
The novel is divided into two parts. The first part chronicles Webster's past as he remembers it, among a clique of three other boys, one of which is a precocious boy named Adrian who fancies himself a bit of a philosopher (actually they all do, but Adrian seems more devoted to the craft). Webster recalls his first years at the University of Bristol where he begins dating a woman by the name of Veronica whom he neither marries nor harbors particular fondness for in his old age, an excruciatingly awkward visit to Veronica's family house and the eventual tragedy that becomes the vortex of the entire narrative. None of these things are particularly related.
But of course they are.
Part Two turns the entire first half of the book on its head when Tony, now in his early sixties, receives a bequeathment of five hundred pounds from Veronica's mother upon her death, despite the fact that he has only met her the one time (at the aforementioned awkward visit) and has neither communicated with her nor Veronica in almost half a century. What follows is a stunning meditation on the nature of history and memory, how one man's recollections can be entirely different (almost polarized in some circumstances) from what others recall. Those that have hitherto been viewed as manipulators or instigators. The events of his past that seemed so trivia in retrospect become the groundwork for the great tragedy in Tony's life.
The novel is essentially a discourse on perspective and perception, neither of which are qualities found in Tony. In fact, as we read, it becomes apparent that Tony is not even remotely capable of seeing the forest for the trees. So much so that the enigmatic (and often frustrating) Veronica is reduced to trite Hollywood-isms ("You just don't get it, do you?) by the end of the novel as she bangs her head against the wall trying to get Tony to see what he will not see. In this respect, Tony is outed for the manifestly ordinary man he has spend his life trying to disguise.
Barnes is trying to tell us something. What, exactly, is never precisely laid out for the reader, but it's all in there, more or less. from the cryptic equations in Adrian's diary to the long, slow (almost painfully so) reveal over the last 20 pages, Barnes warps with perception and recollection in a way that would confound most writers. However, by keeping the story on an arrow-straight trajectory he gives the reader ample opportunity to flip back and compare notes with earlier passages much in the same way a repeat viewer of the Sixth Sense might pick through the plot with a fine toothed comb. I haven't had the chance to do that myself, but I can imagine it would be a great deal of fun to do so.
But for all its philosophical acrobatics, The Sense of an Ending is an engaging and extremely readable novel. At exactly 150 pages, I read the entire book in a single sitting, something my attention span and two month old daughter let me do too often these days. I can't resist books that strike deep into philosophical territory without sacrificing character and story. It is a mark of truly excellent book if the writer can walk that line between meaningful human discourse and solid entertainment value. Julian Barnes does it with skill and style. I can't wait to read his novels that haven't won the Booker Prize.