The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes
Jonathan Cape £12.99
Reviewed by Leyla Sanai
Julian Barnes is a master of compelling, lucid prose, and his
range is far-reaching. From meditations on the French writer Flaubert to
personal and philosophical musings on the inevitability and terror of death;
from novels about middle-class media types in the 1980s to reworkings of the
life of Arthur Conan Doyle in the nineteenth century; and from his sharp,
satirical short stories to those which devastatingly ponder loss, he is as
versatile as he is sophisticated. There is also an understated elegance to his
writing – he is not one for flashy gimmickry, no hare-brained fadster rushing
to the finish line – rather, he is the tortoise whose shell, when you pick it
up, is studded on the inside with dew that is indiscernable from diamonds –
considered, sensitive, brilliant without
being ostentatious, weathering flash floods to win every time.
One prize he hasn’t won to date, inexplicably, is the Man
Booker, which has eluded him despite being shortlisted several times, but since
he’s on the 2011 shortlist, many of us have high hopes that he’ll make it this
The Sense of an Ending is a slip of a thing, only 150 pages
short. But its power is almost in inverse proportion to its length.
The story is narrated by a retired middle-class bloke, Tony. Some event has occurred in his life fairly
recently, and it has given him cause to mull on the nature of time and of
memory. Tony starts the story with his schooldays, when he was part of a trio
of friends who quickly became in thrall to a new boy, Adrian, vastly more
intelligent and serious than anyone they’d previously known. The story segues
naturally into Tony’s time at university in Bristol, and his first serious
relationship, with a fellow student called Veronica.
At intervals, Tony moves to more recent events – his receipt
of a letter from a solicitor telling him he has been left Adrian’s diaries in a
will, and his attempts to procure those diaries.
Past and present intertwine in this beautifully realised
story which examines the faulty nature of memory; its subjectiveness and bias, and
thus, the unreliability of history, both personal and general. As Tony is made
to re-examine his youthful assumptions, he realises that he is not proud of the
person he once was.
Barnes has managed the feat of being both wickedly funny and
heartbreakingly moving in the same story; a trick which only the very best writers –
William Boyd in Any Human Heart, for example – manage. Tony’s account of his
schooldays is often guffaw-inducingly hilarious, some of his classroom scenes
evoking the unsurpassable scenes in Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies when callow and
insensitive schoolboys enliven lessons. But the undercurrent of seriousness is
never far from the surface. The reader picks up details that the blundering
younger Tony misses – Adrian’s vulnerability (beneath his confident
intellectualism, he is a child whose mother has left him); Tony’s unwillingness
to engage emotionally with Veronica; the impact of cruel words rashly spoken.
Even if one sees the ending twist coming, the impact is not
lessened; in fact it almost accentuates Tony’s
myopia. The book is a swooning delight from start to end – the realistic
dialogue, the humour, the evocation of youth lived in the not-distant past. And
its theme – the mutability of memory; the inaccuracy and bias of history – is haunting
and powerful. If Julian Barnes doesn’t
win the Man Booker with this one, then – as Giles Coren suggested recently - the Man Booker doesn’t deserve him.