“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;
- another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;
- bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door;
This last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”
Can an author risk his book’s opening lines to give out the whole story of his novel? The last time I was this amazed was while reading ‘If On A Winter’s Night a Traveller’ by Italo Calvino. ‘The Sense of an Ending’ by Julian Barnes is a slim book, just about 150 pages that received the ‘Man Booker Prize’ in 2011. The book delves into understanding life and death, human memory fallibility and our prejudices.
‘The Sense of an Ending’ is Tony Webster’s story; he is in his 60s and recounting his life’s memories for us. The flashback school days are set in the 1960s. There were three friends – Tony, Colin, and Alex later joined by a fourth friend Adrian, the more intelligent in the group. Towards the end of their school term, a boy commits suicide leaving behind a note saying just ‘Sorry, Mom’. The four friends spend time trying to decipher this note to understand the reason behind this suicide.
But then life goes on; the friends go their separate ways. But there’s a link between Tony and Adrian. Tony had dated Veronica in college who later becomes involved with Adrian. Veronica, according to Tony was damaged and not the right girl for Adrian. He writes a malicious letter to Adrian, warning him against Veronica and advising him to speak with Sarah, Veronica’s mother. There isn’t a response, except that a few months later the news of Adrian’s suicide is received.
In the forty years that have gone by, Tony gets married, divorced and has a daughter. Then one day, a lawyer’s letter arrives for Tony, stating that Sarah has left him five hundred pounds and two documents. In Tony’s memory, Sarah lives as a ‘rather dashing woman who broke an egg, cooked me another, and told me not to take shit from her daughter. ’There is a cover design with an egg on it. Now, this can be read as a metaphorical way referring to a woman’s eggs and an implicit relationship between Tony and Sarah. Or, in the literal sense as the reference made to day Tony met Sarah at the kitchen for breakfast and she was breaking eggs.
Why should this letter reach Tony now, after so many years? The reason behind Adrian’s suicide is to be decoded. And, once you reach the end, you may want to come back to the beginning to understand the ending more coherently.
Tony had warned the readers at the beginning itself that he may be unreliable as our memories do not hold everything in the same accurate way, especially over time. But he is telling us the story as best as he can remember.
Suzanne Dean, the Creative Director at Vintage said during an interview with the Telegraph that she designed over 20 different images for ‘The Sense of an Ending’. She was initially working with the themes of time and memory. She had thought of vintage watches, a photograph of schoolboys, an image of a couple and a visual of torn pages of a diary for the cover. Amongst the seven cover designs that Julian Barnes shortlisted, he liked the one with rulers and a watch the most. But then, Suzanne asked for two more weeks and she began to paint a few abstract ideas.
It finally came to this cover. There is a big black dandelion on the left with more black dandelions floating around and the author’s name alongwith the title on the cover page is pressed to the right. Another striking feature of the letters printed on the cover is that these bold black letters seem to fade in and out, and black is smudged at the edge. Is it a reference to the diary by Adrian left for Tony or an imagery of Tony’s memory at an older age. Suzanne Dean said for this cover that it is the closest thing to an “ending” that anyone could render graphically.
“History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”