Tuesday 12 December 2017

a sense of crafty intrigue from start to finish

prize WINNER IS WORTH A SECOND read to savour its subtlety

The Sense of an Ending Julian Barnes (Macmillan, 2011)

There's plenty to think about in Julian Barnes' well-crafted and intriguing 2011 Man-Booker Prize-winning novel. So much so, that most readers may need to skim the text twice to clarify their thoughts.

Retired arts administrator Tony Webster presumes that "memory equals events plus time" but, as his recollections crystallise, small inconsistencies begin to have uncomfortable consequences.

We are reminded that memories aren't recorded like videos, but are assembled like "Lego pieces from a bucket in your brain". So, when new pieces are thrown into Tony Webster's bucket he must rethink his past.

Tony inherits £500 and the diary of his former friend Adrian Finn. In his quest to obtain the diary he is forced to reconsider the enigmatic relationships of his past.

As an adolescent, Tony was part of a small clique. His group of three friends were aloof and pretentious, and read history and classical writings. Judgmental and anti-establishment, they denounce family, politics and the "perceived nature of reality".

When a new student, Adrian, joins their group, the friends marvel at his cleverness and compete for his attention.


Central to the plot is Tony's first serious relationship, with Veronica Ford. The relationship sours as Tony feels judged and struggles to understand Veronica.

When he receives a letter some months later from Adrian, bitterness resurfaces. Adrian, now on scholarship at Cambridge University, writes to say that he and Veronica are seeing each other.

Tony returns from a trip to the US to the news that Adrian has committed suicide. The suicide was meticulously planned and philosophically justified by Adrian in the articulate note he leaves behind. Tony admires Adrian's conviction to act, rather than "merely let life happen" to him.

There is a brief account of Tony's marriage ending with divorce 12 years later, but he is satisfied that he gets along well with his daughter and former wife. He remains in the same job before retiring and doing some volunteer work. Despite the dullness of the narrator, Barnes captures readers with the intrigue that develops over obtaining the diary.

A meeting with Veronica dredges up expertly described memories, leading to Tony's painful self-awareness. In defence of the narrator, it's difficult for Tony to understand something that's not fully evident. Veronica's expectation that he should "get it" when he doesn't have all the pieces is an exacting one.

The ideas are stressed skillfully and the reader is challenged to make their own interpretations and conclusions. The book raises questions about individual responsibility and the choices people make. Condensed and canny, readable and challenging, The Sense of an Ending is easy to recommend . . . twice over!

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