The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes: Book Review

I read ‘The Sense of an Ending’ by Julian Barnes soon after it had won the Man Booker Prize in 2011. Once I received the book, the most striking part was its minimal cover design. Though I was clueless on what to expect from a book that merely ran into 150 pages! 

Least to say, the introductory paragraph itself blew me away. The everyday, mundane routine of one’s life connected through a dotted line leading to a certain precipice. This book is a philosophical sojourn through fading memory or sometimes self-deception and manipulation. It explores themes of aging, time, and suicide. In a sense, it is also about Karma getting at you in unseen ways.

“History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

An Overview

The book is divided into two parts, both narrated by Tony Webster, the protagonist. The first part is told as he looks back in time and the second is his present.

An interesting opening to the book with certain random things that Tony remembers from the past – the ordinary moments like ‘steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is tossed in’, form the frame that string together his life.

Chronologically speaking, the story begins in the 1960s with three friends – Tony, Colin, and Alex in school, joined by a fourth friend Adrian. Adrian is intellectually superior, ‘the scholarship material’. Tony and Adrian’s friendship is central to the plot.

These few pages at the beginning led me to expect a story of four boys and as the author says that would have been a ‘kids story’. But, nay!

Boys are boys, so you read the quirky answers from them in the Literature and History classes at school. The turnaround comes when a boy at school commits suicide, leaving behind a note that just says, ‘Sorry, Mom’. The four friends try to understand the reason behind this suicide.

It is imperative to understand the discourse structured after a suicide, the attempts made by strangers in deciphering the victim’s frame of mind, and the mysterious circumstance of his/ her life. 

As the school finishes, the four friends leave for their separate ways, vowing to continue their friendship. This is when the three friends realize the importance they were giving to Adrian in all their communications, who was now in Cambridge.

In college, Tony has a girlfriend named Veronica. One weekend, Tony is invited by Veronica to her home in Chiselhurst. Veronica, her father, and her brother seem rather rude to Tony. While Veronica’s mother remarks in private to Tony, ‘Don’t let Veronica get away with too much.’

Soon after this visit, Tony and Veronica break up. Tony receives a letter from Veronica’s mother who instead of being accusatory, felt sorry for Tony and hoped he would find someone more suitable.

In the meantime, Tony receives a letter from Adrian stating that he is dating Veronica. In reply, Tony writes to Adrian about Veronica being damaged and suggests him to talk to her mother. After a few months, the news of Adrian’s suicide arrives.  

Years later, Tony is married to Margaret and they have a daughter. Margaret is drawn in complete contrast to Veronica. In the present, Tony and Margaret are divorced.

Tony is content with his peaceable life but suddenly after forty years, Tony receives five hundred pounds and a letter from Veronica’s mother. She has also left behind Adrian’s diary.

All that Tony now seeks is to retrieve this diary and know the truth behind Adrian’s suicide. Veronica turns out to be as stubborn and adamant as she had been in the past. After many efforts, she hands over a sheet to Tony but not the diary. She, also, hands over the letter that Tony had written to Adrian, in response to his relationship with Veronica. Tony had written it brutally and in complete distaste. Unbelievably, this letter had set things rolling.

What I Felt about this book?

This book is undoubtedly one of my favourite from the contemporary picks. I am not too keen on philosophical ramblings but this book is crafted brilliantly. A well-deserved prize-winner indeed!

Julian Barnes takes us back and forth in time. You begin to understand life’s lessons in this trajectory. He also explores the expectation one has from life, the things we take for granted. As if ageing alone could mellow us down and reward our merits in due course.

Though why should we expect age to mellow us? If it isn’t life’s business to reward merit, why should it be life’s business to give us warm, comfortable feelings towards the end?

You are drawn to Tony Webster as a protagonist; he isn’t a classic hero rather an ordinary man. A man who chose to have a peaceable life. Is being peaceable equated to being mature or coward? It is upon you to deliberate as a reader.

The women in Tony’s life define the choices he has made – Veronica, the enigmatic and unpredictable while Margaret leads a stable path. In ways, this represents the polar opposite options one has in life.

The book plays around with the subjectivity of our mind in remembering certain people in certain ways. Is it our memory that tricks us to make our stories more palatable for others or is it our failure at understanding and remembering the past with clarity?

Once you know the ‘ending’, you would want to revisit that one page from Adrian’s diary that Tony gets to see and the letter that he had written to Adrian. In the end, you certainly get the sense of ‘time’s malleability’.

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