The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes’ latest novel and the book that (finally) this week won him the Man Booker Prize, is a thin book impregnated with fat ideas. At 150 pages, Barnes’ book only barely dodges the description ‘novella’, a designation that nowadays carries connotations of being somehow ‘lightweight’. If not with its size, Barnes’ latest offering self-confidently (although sometimes self-consciously) asserts itself as novelistic with its cerebral themes, its refinement of style, and the poised and precise prose that has become the hallmark of one of Britain’s most well-respected modern writers.
Barnes’s narrator, Tony, has grown old, his life consigned to mundanity after a failed university relationship and the suicide of school friend Adrian, an aloof Camus-quoting intellectual. ‘History isn’t the lies of the victors,’ Tony tells us, ‘It’s more the memories of the survivors’. But, as ever with Barnes, things are more complex than that. Veronica, an enigmatic, difficult girl, and the focus of his adolescent romantic troubles, was in a relationship with Adrian at the time of his death, and now, decades later, Veronica’s recently deceased mother has bequeathed Adrian’s diary to Tony, despite having only met him once. The only problem is that Veronica has the diary, and she won’t give it back. From this tortuous setup, Barnes weaves a steady and contemplative plot as Tony must relive those early, half-forgotten disappointments with the alluring promise of his friend’s diary, and some kind of answer to the mystery of his suicide, hovering always just out of reach.
The Sense of an Ending is peppered with strong insight into the inadequacies of history and the myths we build up around people. The choreography of scenes is often startlingly real, but at times reaching after poignancy leaves Barnes’ characters merely philosophising woodenly, with the first pages of the novel particularly seeing meditations on the crises of memory and questions of subjective and objective interpretation muscled with slightly too much force into conversations. Despite this tendency, some very real ideological conflicts are powerfully evoked – chief among them the contrast between what Tony perceives as Adrian’s unflinching ‘moral courage’ in committing suicide, and his own shying away from the philosophical imperatives of life: ‘I wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded – and how pitiful that was’. There are also speculations as to whether the parallels between Tony’s particular regrets bear more than a passing resemblance to those experienced by Barnes during his public split with one-time friend Martin Amis.
The book is saturated with the mutability of memory, and Tony is an unreliable narrator in the style of Ishiguro or Faulks. Conversations are qualified with disclaimers such as ‘Was this their exact exchange? Almost certainly not’, and as the novel wends to its depth-charge conclusion, Tony is consistently reminded ‘You just don’t get it’, and neither, the reader increasingly feels, do we. The twist is clever and skilfully delivered, if a little perplexing, but it is a masterfully constructed plot, so much so that once a reader has finished the last page, they will immediately turn back to the first. After all, they have probably forgotten much of the detail.
NWR gets new writers noticed, and gets published writers new readers. Support writers by subscribing!
Next week's blog: Rory MacLean, Berlin ‘wild boy clubbers', nature writing, grief and belonging