I heard discussions of Julian Barnes’ slim novel, The Sense of an Ending, on two of my favorite book podcasts, Books on the Nightstand and The Readers. The novel won the Man Booker Prize for fiction last year and was attracting a lot of attention. Although my reading is normally somewhat regulated – by review books, book club selections, books sitting on my TBR shelf, etc. – after the podcasts, I went right to my library’s website and requested the novel. I enjoyed getting to read a recommended book right away (instead of watching it sit on my TBR list for years!), and I enjoyed the novel very much.
Tony Webster is a middle-aged British man who sees himself as very average, perhaps even dull, having lived an average life and enjoying an average retirement. In an effort to understand a friend’s unexpected death and a very odd inheritance left to him by an acquaintance he didn’t even know very well, Tony looks back over his life, trying to make sense of this puzzling new information from his past that has just come to light. He starts with high school, remembering certain key events that he realizes in hindsight may have had repercussions far into the future. He goes back through his life, recalling key events and things he thought were insignificant at the time, trying to sift through his memories and understand how things led where they did.
It is a thought-provoking novel, as Tony ponders the meaning of time:
We live in time – it holds us and molds us – but I’ve never felt I understood it well…. I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing – until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.
And he also recalls the musings of a friend in History class on the paradoxes of memory:
“History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
And this last quote is at the heart of the novel and Tony’s reflections. Can his memory be relied upon as accurate? Did events occur as he remembers? How did the perceptions of his friends differ from his own? Despite this philosophical bent and the definite characteristics of “literary fiction,” the novel moves along at a nice pace and is very engaging. There is even a bit of suspense, as Tony attempts to unravel the mysteries of the past and his role in it. I thoroughly enjoyed this short novel and would love to read more from Barnes. The award was well-deserved.
163 pages, Alfred A. Knopf