- The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
- Hardcover: 176 pages
- Publisher: Knopf (October 5, 2011)
- ISBN-13: 978-0307957122
Who and what is the book about (back-of-the-book blurb): This intense new novel follows a middle-aged man as he contends with a past he has never much thought about—until his closest childhood friends return with a vengeance, one of them from the grave, another maddeningly present. Tony Webster thought he’d left all this behind as he built a life for himself … But he is then presented with a mysterious legacy that obliges him to reconsider a variety of things he thought he’d understood all along, and to revise his estimation of his own nature and place in the world.
This is novel so compelling that it begs to be read in a single sitting; it has stunning psychological and emotional depth and sophistication.
Where and when does it take place: “School is where it all began…” says the narrator of The Sense of an Ending. “School” is a 1960s high school in central London to which the pack of four boys travel each day. There were three in their tight unit initially, then Adrian Finn joined the school and their group of friends.
After we get to know the characters (especially Adrian, Tony, and Tony’s girlfriend – Veronica), the novel moves ahead to university days, then middle age.
What would I say to a friend who asked me about it: This is a novel that I had avoided (for a bit, anyway) because of all the hoopla surrounding it. The Sense of an Ending won the 2011 Man Booker Prize, and has been a steady seller at the bookshop, raved about by the manager and others who had read it. I wanted to read and enjoy/judge it on its own merits, rather than being caught up in the crowd mentality. Well, I’m very glad that I finally took an afternoon to read it!
This is a deceptively slim novel – 163 pages packed with what is truly a masterpiece of words, sly plot, and character. I love that the book is written in the first person; we’re privy to the thoughts of Tony Webster, as he muses about life, makes discoveries, and tries to make sense of what is happening around him.
Tony’s relationship with Adrian is fairly brief, but intense. There’s a bit of hero-worship when Adrian joins the school and their little clique of boys. Adrian is super smart, questions everything, and has a philosophical answer to anything that’s asked of him. He dares to contradict or engage their professors in a gentlemanly debate, but it’s done in a respectful way, and the professors, too, admire and respect him.
The bulk of the novel takes place after the boys have left high school, but the groundwork for the rest of the novel is laid there, as Julian Barnes constructs these relationships and personalities. Honestly, the less you know about the actual plot going into the book, the more you’ll take from it, as you discover his clever ways.
Why did I read it: See above I was compelled to read it, and am so glad that I went into it with blinders on to the many press citations and potential spoilers that are out there.
A few favorite passages: So many! I have about a dozen Post-it flags sticking out from the pages! I’ve chosen three to share here that don’t reflect on the plot at all, except to show the types of things that occupy Tony’s mind as the novel plays out.
School-boy musings (p. 16); note the lauding reference to Adrian at the end:
This was another of our fears; that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature. Look at our parents – were they the stuff of Literature? At best, they might aspire to the condition of onlookers and bystanders, part of a social backdrop against which real, true, important things could happen. Like what? The things Literature was all about: love, sex, morality, friendship, happiness, suffering, betrayal, adultery, good and evil, heroes and villains, guilt and innocence, ambition, power, justice, revolution, war, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, the individual agains society, success and failure, murder, suicide, death, God. And barn owls. Of course, there were other sorts of literature [note the lowercase l here] – theoretical, self-referential, lachrymosely autobiographical – but they were just dry wanks. Real literature was about psychological, emotional, and social truth as demonstrated by the actions and reflections of its protagonists; the novel was about character developed over time. That’s what Phil Dixon had told us anyway. And the only person … whose life so far contained anything remotely novel-worthy was Adrian.
Musings on middle age and where life has taken him (p. 70):
So when time delivered me all too quickly into middle age, and I began looking back over how my life had unfolded, and considering the paths not taken, those lulling, undermining what-ifs, I never found myself imagining – not even for worse, let alone for better – how things would have been … And I never regretted my years … Try as I could – which wasn’t very hard – I rarely ended up fantasising [yes, British spelling] a markedly different life from the one that has been mine. I don’t think this is complacency; it’s more likely a lack of imagination, or ambition, or something. I suppose the truth is that, yes, I’m not odd enough not to have done the things I’ve ended up doing with my life.
Tony questions “character” of himself and others, and whether it continues to grow (change? improve?) over time (p. 139):
Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does: otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities; but that’s something different, more like decoration. Perhaps character resembles intelligence, except that character peaks a little later: between twenty and thirty, say. And after that, we’re just stuck with what we’ve got. We’re on our own. If so, that would explain a lot of lives, wouldn’t it? And also – if this isn’t too grand a word – our tragedy.
What else can I add: The back-of-the-book-blurb indicates that the novel “begs to be read in a single sitting.” What it doesn’t tell you is that you’ll then want to take another afternoon to re-read it and find beautiful language and structure that you may have missed the first time around.