Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

I was a little shocked when I picked up The Sense of an Ending, winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, because it’s such a small book.  Not only is it a stretch to call it a novel (a mere 163 pages – more like a “novella”) but the pages are small too, about the size of my Kindle and easy to pop into my purse.  So I read the beginning and was intrigued enough to fork over the $23.95.  It goes like this:

I remember, in no particular order:

 — a shiny inner wrist;

 — steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;

— gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house;

 — a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams; . . .

And then:

We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I’ve never felt I understood it very well. 

It’s the story of the memory of a particular time – the end of high school and beginning of college, first love, friends who go off and live different lives, promising to keep in touch, but not doing it so well.  It’s also the story of a man, Tony Webster, in his sixties, looking back at the 1960s in retrospect with lots of life lived in between which we learn about in a very matter of fact and British way:

. . . I’d left home, and started work as a trainee in arts administration.  Then I met Margaret; we married, and three years later Susie was born.  We bought a small house with a large mortgage; I commuted up to London every day.  My traineeship turned into a long career.  Life went by; Some Englishman once said that marriage is a long dull meal with the pudding served first.  I think that’s far too cynical.  I enjoyed my marriage, but was perhaps too quiet – too peaceable – for my own good.  After a dozen years Margaret took up with a fellow who ran a restaurant. . . . Custody of Susie was shared.  Happily, she didn’t seem too affected by the breakup; . . .

He sums it up like this:  And that’s a life, isn’t it?  Some achievements and some disappointments.

In the second part of the story, Tony receives a letter from a law firm informing him that he’s been left “five hundred pounds and two documents” from the estate of his old girlfriend”s mother.  And this sends him back in time, to the year that he dated this girl,Veronica,  the one weekend he spent with her parents, trying to imagine why her mother would leave him any money at all and what documents?  Through a series of fits and starts he, in his late middle-aged way, gets in touch with first the lawyers and then the enigmatic Veronica herself who behaves bizarrely, leads him on apparent wild-goose chases and will not tell him anything straight out.  Rather, she tells him, it seems more than once, “You don’t get it, do you?  You never did get it.”  And I suppose that’s the point.  His memory of their time together was simply his memory which had large gaps given the intervening years.  The author plays out the idea of unintended consequences here.  There is a tragedy – his old school friend, Adrian, after hooking up with Veronica, kills himself.  But this is old news, Tony had come to terms with that years ago, and they had all lost touch, had a falling out.

This short novel is long on ideas about memory, the meaning of life, or at least of a life, and certainly made me think about the past, my past, the passage of time.  But when I closed the book, I felt a little short-changed.  I wanted more.  And there is so much great material here that Barnes could have given us so much more.  I wanted to know more about the intervening years, the other characters, the real story behind the tragedy.  Perhaps I missed the point.  You decide.  But rather than spend the $23.95 cover price, I’d recommend you check this one out from the library instead.

– Rachel

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About writeinseattle

Two Seattle writers examining the writer's life.
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