Book Review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed

TheSenseofAnEndingAbout the Book

Publisher’s description: Tony Webster and his clique first met Adrian Finn at school. Sex-hungry and book-hungry, they would navigate the girl-less sixth form together, trading in affectations, in-jokes, rumour and wit. Maybe Adrian was a little more serious than the others, certainly more intelligent, but they all swore to stay friends for life. Now Tony is retired. He’s had a career and a single marriage, a calm divorce. He’s certainly never tried to hurt anybody. Memory, though, is imperfect. It can always throw up surprises, as a lawyer’s letter is about to prove.


Book Facts

Format: Hardcover Publisher: Jonathan Cape Pages: 150
Publication: 4th August 2011 Genre: Literary Fiction    

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My Review

This book forms part of my From Page to Screen challenge. I’ll be writing separately about my comparison of the book and the film.

I’m ashamed to say this is the first book I’ve read by Julian Barnes but, safe to say, it won’t be my last. As well as telling an intriguing story, whose lesson might be that actions have consequences, the book explores a familiar theme for writers, namely storytelling and the line between truth and fiction.

The book opens with fragments of memories that slot into place and make sense only as the book progresses. The narrator, Tony, reminisces about adolescent friendships, early romantic relationships and their aftermath. However, the book gradually evolves into something darker, centring on a key event, Tony’s reaction to it at the time and the events set in train by that response.  I can’t say much more for fear of spoilers but the reader knows early on that the narrator, Tony, is omitting or amending facts about his life both unconsciously and consciously.

‘I told her the story of my life. The version I tell myself, the account that stands up.’

He pretty much tells us that he is choosing what is and isn’t going to part of his story.

‘How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts?

As Tony ruminates on ageing and looks back on his life, he regrets not being more adventurous. He reflects that as a young man he’d imagined he’d live ‘as people in novels live and have lived’.

‘But time…how time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them.’

Tony believes he is a good father to his daughter (he keeps telling us so), that he remains friends with his ex-wife and has never deliberately hurt anyone. This is the ‘story’, if you like, he has created for himself. I was reminded of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and Pip’s confession that: “All other swindlers upon earth are nothing to the self-swindlers and with such pretences did I cheat myself.”

In the end, faced with evidence from his past, Tony puts together the pieces of the jigsaw to form the picture he has been unable (or unwilling) to see and is forced to face up to his part in life-changing events.

A very accomplished piece of writing, as you might expect from an author of this calibre. It’s a slim volume and not a word is wasted.

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In three words: Reflective, intimate, drama

Try something similar…Atonement by Ian McEwan

JulianBarnesAbout the Author

Julian Barnes is a contemporary English writer of postmodernism in literature. He has been shortlisted three times for the Man Booker Prize for Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), England, England (1998), and Arthur & George (2005) and won the prize for The Sense of an Ending (2011). He has written crime fiction under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh. Following an education at the City of London School and Merton College, Oxford, he worked as a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary. Subsequently, he worked as a literary editor and film critic. He now writes full-time. Julian lived in London with his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, until her death in October 2008.

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