I have wanted to read Julian Barnes’ ‘The Sense of Ending’ for a while, but I couldn’t get to it for one reason or another. Then the book club that I am a part of, decided to read the book for this month and so I finally got around to reading it. It is a slim book – my edition had 150 pages – and I read it in a day. Though I lingered on sentences, re-read passages and posted some of my favourite passages on Facebook, it still took me less than a day to finish. Here is what I think.
The story of ‘The Sense of an Ending’ is told by a narrator in his sixties who looks back on his life. The book starts with a set of images that the narrator remembers. (It is a fascinating exercise to find out where the images occur in the main story.) The story continues with the narrator remembering his friends in school and the arrival of a new boy called Adrian who befriends him and his friends. Adrian turns out to be different from the other friends in the group, but still they get along well. The story goes on about how the narrator grows up, falls in love with a girl called Veronica, the weekend he spends with his girlfriend’s family, and how things don’t work between him and his girlfriend later though the silver lining was that Veronica’s mother was kind to him. The narrator further describes how later Veronica and his friend Adrian get together and how he responds to that news. One day he receives news that Adrian has committed suicide and he and his other two friends are shocked and meet to discuss it. Then the story moves through the further decades of the narrator’s life. Later after he has retired, he gets a letter from a solicitor saying that Veronica’s mother has passed away and has left him a few things which includes a letter and Adrian’s diary. The narrator is puzzled and his mind goes back to the past and he thinks about Adrian’s death and he goes on a quest to find out the truth behind Adrian’s death and what Veronica’s mother’s connection is to this event.
‘The Sense of an Ending’ is about memory and reality and on how the memories we rely on to tell our story is essentially unreliable, making us all unreliable narrators. It is also about how commonplace a normal person’s life is – on how we all do the same things and go through similar stuff with some changes here and there. The story which the book tells is quite interesting, and has a surprising ending which is only implied and leads to different interpretations. (I could think of two different interpretations.) But I also feel that the book is not just about the plot. It is also a meditation on life, death, history, culture, memory, change. My favourite parts of the book were the ones where Barnes uses the narrator to comment on all these topics and more. Starting from the first page, where he talks about time :
“We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I’ve never felt I understood it very well. And I’m not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly : tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing – until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.”
and the second page where he talks about memory :
I need to return briefly to a few incidents that have grown into anecdotes, to some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty.
these beautiful and insightful sentences and passages keep on coming. My highlighting pen was working overtime when I reached the end of the book. At one point of time I randomly picked a page which I hadn’t read and I found a paragraph there which was quite insightful. That was how good the book was. The balance between the beautiful passages, the insightful thoughts and the plot was perfect. I enjoyed reading every word of the book. I also loved the understated humour throughout the book.
I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.
If you’ll excuse a brief history lesson : most people didn’t experience ‘the Sixties’ until the Seventies. Which meant, logically, that most people in the Sixties were still experiencing the Fifties – or, in my case, bits of both decades side by side. Which made things rather confusing.
I remember a period in late adolescence when my mind would make itself drunk with images of adventurousness. This is how it will be when I grow up. I shall go there, do this, discover that, love her, and then her and her and her. I shall live as people in novels live and have lived. Which ones I was not sure, only that passion and danger, ecstasy and despair (but then more than ecstasy) would be in attendance. However…who said that thing about ‘the littleness of life that art exaggerates’? There was a moment in my late twenties when I admitted that my adventurousness had long since petered out. I would never do those things adolescence had dreamt about. Instead, I mowed my lawn, I took holidays, I had my life.
But time…how time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them. Time…give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical.
How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but – mainly – to ourselves.
‘The question of accumulation,’ Adrian had written. You put money on a horse, it wins, and your winnings go on to the next horse in the next race, and so on. Your winnings accumulate. But do your losses? Not at the racetrack – there, you just lose your original stake. But in life? Perhaps here different rules apply. You bet on a relationship, it fails; you go on to the next relationship, it fails too; and maybe what you lose is not two simple minus sums but the multiple of what you staked. That’s what it feels like, anyway. Life isn’t just addition and subtraction. There’s also the accumulation, the multiplication, of loss, of failure.
You can find Andrew’s wonderful review of the book here and his interpretation of the ending here. Check out the comments sections in both the posts which have a fascinating discussion on the ending of the book. You can find Delia’s beautiful review of the book here.
‘The Sense of an Ending’ is one of my favourite reads of the year. I read Barnes’ ‘Nothing to be Frightened Of’ earlier this year and liked it, but I liked ‘The Sense of an Ending’ more. When it won the Booker prize, Barnes connoisseurs said that it was not his best work. If something which is not his work is this good, I can only imagine how his best work would be. I checked out his backlist and discovered that ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ has got a lot of raving reviews. I want to read that next. I am also intrigued by ‘Before She Met Me’ (because of the title) and ‘Talking it Over’ (because of the plot).
Have you read ‘The Sense of an Ending’? What do you think about it?