Updated on August 5, 2015
34. ‘The Sense of an Ending’ by Julian Barnes
Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize 2011 winning novel, ‘The Sense of an Ending’ deals with history, memory, and the ways in which people don’t so much remember the past as construct it. To take a quote from the book: “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
The book is divided into two parts, and is narrated by the protagonist, Tony. In the first section, Tony describes in great detail his years at school in the 1960s. The weight which he lends to these years demonstrates not only how formative they were to his character, but also the extent to which they affect the rest of his life.
Tony describes his closest friends. Amongst them is the intelligent – bordering on genius – Adrian, who one day commits suicide. Tony and the other boys try to find an explanation for what Adrian has done, and they come up with many ideas: perhaps it was to do with his character (his enormous intelligence must have made life seem mundane), the situation he was in (there are banal rumours that he had made a girl pregnant), and the aesthetics of the action (perhaps he was trying to prove a wider point about history, ageing and the poignance of taking your life in your own hands). However, none of these explanations fit comfortably.
Given the flexibility and fluidity of history in this novel, it is not surprising that Tony then skips over the next decades of his life, painting in broad brush strokes up until his sixties. Of course this surprises the reader, but it also implies that some sort of answer to the questions raised in the first half of the book, will only find an answer closer to the end of Tony’s life.
And answers do come. I found the climax of the story to be quite unexpected. Of course, Barnes leads the reader (like Tony) down a particular path, and then brilliantly changes tack at the last minute. The writing throughout is clever, piercing and thought-provoking, and I really felt as though I was being carried along by a master of storytelling.
In the end, I was left with a sense of the smallness of the story. There are no world-changing events here, but a single life, filled with grand ideas and unanswerable questions. Most importantly, the story really breathes thanks to Tony, whose life, however insignificant it may be in the over-arching scheme of things, is narrated from the inside, with all the importance that anybody would contribute to their own existence.
I had my eye on this one in bookshops for a very long time, and eventually caved and bought it on the Kindle, after it won the Booker Prize. If I have one regret it’s that I didn’t buy the physical copy – how often do you find a book that has black-edged pages?
If you enjoyed my review, why not buy the book and let me know what you think?