Thursday, January 26, 2012
REVIEW: The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes
Winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize and latest novel by acclaimed British writer Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending is a must-read for any reader of literary fiction. The book tells the story, in his own words, of middle-aged Tony Webster and his lifetime of regret around his relationship with two people- Veronica, an ex-girlfriend, and Adrian, a close friend from school. Lifetime of regret isn't quite right; he doesn't find out until very late in his story that he has any reason to regret but when he does, it's as though the weight of all of his decisions crashes upon him and he's left to sort through the rubble alone.
The theme of the novel is laid out early, as a high-school-aged Adrian is talking to a teacher about how to write history fairly: "That's one of the central problems of history, isn't it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that's being put in front of us." And herein lies the central challenge of this book. Tony is telling this story from the future, after the events have taken place; in the opening pages, as we're getting to know the characters, their futures, and Tony's, is hidden from us but not from the man telling the story. He knows things we don't yet, and these things color the way he tells the story. We can't understand anything he's saying until we know everything and we don't know everything until the very end.
Therefore, re-reading The Sense of an Ending is mandatory!
However the book is short enough, and more than wonderful enough, to make a reread easy and worthwhile. Soon after this point in the story, Tony meets Veronica, and their relationship forms the basis of the rest of the book. Even after their romance ends, they continue to interact in meaningful ways; one could say that Tony's relationship with Veronica is the central and defining one of his life, even as he tries to argue that other women were more important. That lie is one of many, maybe not lies exactly but self-deceptions Tony tries to sell the reader. The final secret is revealed obliquely, which tells us something about Tony's ability to process what he's learned and face it.
The Sense of an Ending is a wonderfully, intricately crafted unreliable-narrator story starring a perfectly ordinary man who, through one act of cruelty by whose impact he himself seems baffled, upends four lives for years to come. It's also the story of his reckoning and acceptance of what he's done as well as his ultimate irrelevance. And it is a book that deserves an immediate re-read. But you'll want to- you really will. It's just that good!
This counts towards the Complete Booker Perpetual Challenge.
I'm a Powell's partner and receive a small commission on sales.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.