The Sense of an Ending won the Man Booker Prize in 2011 and is an exquisitely written short novel. It also has the most beautiful cover I’ve seen in a book for a long time – dandelions flying in the wind and pages with black stained edges.
Julian Barnes is at the peak of his talent as a writer. This is an incredibly well-crafted book, written with precision where not one word is superfluous. It is a book about memory, the malleability of memory, and how different people remember the same events differently. It is about time and how time affects memories.
Tony Webster is the main character – he is retired, divorced, he gets on well enough with his daughter and listens to classical music. He’s a boring man, really, and not particularly likable in my mind. He’s had a good career and gets on well with his ex-wife. He is, in his words, a “peaceable” man; in others’ words, a coward. The book starts with a list of some of his memories: “a shiny, inner wrist, …. gouts of sperm circling a plughole … bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door.” Of memories, he says “…what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed,” a statement that encapsulates theme of the book.
An unexpected letter arrives for him one day and this forces him to go back in his mind to his school days, when he met Adrian Finn for the first time. Adrian joins Tony’s tight clique of friends: himself, Colin and Alex. “Adrian allowed himself to be absorbed into our group, without acknowledging that it was something he sought. Perhaps he didn’t.” Adrian is part of the group, yet remains an individual – clever, musical, philosophical, ‘essentially serious unless he was taking the piss’.
I love Julian Barnes’ descriptions – he refers to the three boys as seeing school sports as being ‘a crypto-fascist plan for repressing our sex-drive’. He describes them as being ‘book-hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, anarchistic’. At times I found this book to be funny, something I didn’t expect.
After school, they drift to different universities and keep in touch with the occasional letter. Tony goes to Bristol University and falls in love with Veronica Ford, whose ‘sexual policy’ is to go so far and then say, ‘It doesn’t feel right’. She is a manipulative character, who takes Tony home one weekend only to leave him to the mercy of his scathing father and mean brother. I squirmed reading that section of the book. Only her mother treats him kindly and warns him not to let Veronica get away with too much. He and Veronica drift along in their relationship, until Veronica confronts him on the future of his relationship – Tony is unable to commit, nor can he put words to his feelings, and so they break up. However, he does tell us that after they broke up, they slept together. He remembers it as being mutual decision; she remembers it as being practically a rape.
He tells us how sometime after that he receives a letter from Adrian telling him that he and Veronica are going out together. Tony remembers sending a letter back to him: ‘I told him pretty much what I thought of their joint moral scruples. I also advised him to be prudent, because …. Veronica had suffered damage a long way back.’
When Tony finishes university, he goes to America and travels around, doing odd jobs. When he gets home six months later, however, he is confronted with the news that Adrian has committed suicide, cut his wrists in the bath and bled to death, but that Adrian had been happy and ‘in love’ when he died.
Tony’s story fast-forwards through his marriage, career, divorce and children until we are at the time of his telling us the story of his memories, all sparked by a lawyer’s letter he receives out the blue, in which he is told that he had been left 500 pounds and two documents by a Veronica’s mother. The one document is a fragment of a page on which his friend from school, Adrian, had written, but which has no conclusion as the next page is missing. The other document is Adrian’s diary, except it isn’t given to Tony because Veronica still has it.
This reconnects Tony to Veronica as he wishes to get the diary from her. She is extremely reluctant to see him again, she won’t hand over the diary. She is nasty, rude and bitter towards him and yet Tony fantasises about their getting together again. She gives him the letter that he wrote her and Adrian all those years ago when they told him they were going out – it is hideous, vicious, bitter and wishes bad luck upon them. It made me, as the reader, dislike Tony intensely. She also, during their present-time meetings, keeps telling Tony that he just ‘doesn’t get it’.
As a reader, I didn’t understand what Tony was supposed to be getting and here is where the book became frustrating and exasperating – though still intriguing. I have encountered people who have found the end of the book irritating and senseless, but there is a twist to this story that kept me thinking about the book for ages afterwards. I had to go back and read it again to see what clues I had missed, what is was that gives the story the ‘sense of an ending’.
This is a novella, it is a quick read, but one I won’t forget in a long time and one that will keep me discussing the twist with friends for ages to come. I’m not going to give a hint of what it might be, but my advice is that you read the book again once you have finished it and, if you are still curious, go onto the internet to read some fascinating discussions about it.