The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Tony Webster and his clique first met Adrian Finn at school. Sex-hungry and book-hungry, they would navigate the girl-less sixth form together, trading in affectations, in-jokes, rumour and wit. Maybe Adrian was a little more serious than the others, certainly more intelligent, but they all swore to stay friends for life.
Now Tony is retired. He’s had a career and a single marriage, a calm divorce. He’s certainly never tried to hurt anybody. Memory, though, is imperfect. It can always throw up surprises, as a lawyer’s letter is about to prove.
I have to admit when Sense of an Ending was short-listed for last year’s Man Booker Prize, I wasn’t remotely interested in it – I thought it looked pretentious, and would definitely not be to my taste. But then of course, it won. I’ve managed to resist for this long, but when it was chosen for our booksellers book group, I thought now is definitely the time. I was actually even a little excited to finally read the book that everyone has been talking about for the past year! Of course, the question is; what did I make of it?
Well I wouldn’t go so far as to say I loved it. I found that I didn’t enjoy the first thirty pages or so due to its pretentious ramblings that I couldn’t quite get my head around. Then I started to get into it, and I even began to admire Barnes for his ability to write about life in a way that mimics possibly everyone’s thought processes on the subject. Some of the lines are poetically beautiful without even trying to be, and I began looking back on my own school days, and the relationships I had with friends and boyfriends, and the effects that spiral from the tiniest of events. I even started to think of my future, and what lies ahead, and what it all really means. There is no doubt that this book started to bring my mood down in a way I haven’t seen happen in a while. It’s virtually unavoidable. This isn’t the sort of book you would take on holiday or read on a lovely summer’s evening. It’s the sort of book you shut yourself away with in a quiet room so that you have the time and space to reflect on every word Barnes is saying, and allow yourself to connect to them.
However, the book began to lose me again in the second half and I think this is probably because the plot began to thin out and the meanderings took over a little too much for my liking. After discussing this book at our book group last night, there was pretty much a unanimous vote that Barnes cannot write female characters in a way that seems even remotely believable. The character of Veronica, who Tony had his first real relationship with, and who his thoughts still centre on throughout the story as he looks back on his life, is far too two-dimensional. The characters around Tony sometimes feel more like plot devices rather than real people, and it’s fairly easy to see that Barnes’ strength lies in the intellectual side rather than the characterisation.
We had a very long and very interesting discussion about this book last night, and how younger people seemed to prefer the first half of the novel relating to Tony’s school days, and the older generation preferred the second half where he was looking back on his life. I guess it’s very dependent on how you as a reader can relate to Tony, but there’s no doubt you will relate to him in some way as he shares the same thoughts we’ve all had at some point in our lives. As for the ‘twist’ at the end, I definitely saw it coming and so the ending became a bit of an anti-climax for me. I couldn’t really understand why it had taken Tony so long to grasp, but I guess that’s the way life really works sometimes.
The Sense of an Ending isn’t going to be one of my favourite books ever, but I am still glad I’ve had the chance to read it. If it wasn’t for book group, it may have always stayed as one of those books I meant to read, but just haven’t got to yet! I don’t think it’s as good as most people make out, but I also think perhaps the older you are the more you would get out of a book like this that ponders the woes of ageing. It’s an intriguing read and one I would definitely recommend to book groups – we had such a brilliant discussion over it, and it actually became our highest scored book of the book group so far.
The next book chosen for our booksellers book group is James Frey’s The Final Testament of the Holy Bible. Although this book has always intrigued me, I don’t think I would ever have picked it up so I’m really looking forward to this!
The Sense of an Ending is published by Vintage.