British writer Julian Barnes is a history aficionado. The connections between myth, memory and truth have fascinated him throughout his writing career, and thus the author has written essays on cultural history and investigated biographies of other authors.
What is more, Barnes’ fictional protagonists are usually looking back on their lives, forming their own history and weighing certain events and their impact. So when Tony goes looking for his past in The Sense of an Ending, a reader might not be surprised to be taken on a series of reflections and memories from the youth of an elderly gentleman.
It is usually easy to aquire the sympathies of the reader, since the reader is originally inclined to believe, trust and follow the narrator. Thus, when said narrator expresses doubt or concerns about the accuracy of their story, then surely they must be trustworthy and their side of the story objective enough to believe their motives and assessments of situations.
However, this notion is often treacherous on account of the narrator is just trying to get the reader onto their side. This might just be the case for protagonist Tony Webster, who is recounting the story of his life and remembering the people of most influence to him.
The title The Sense of an Ending might refer to the main character being in his later years and sensing his life reaching its final chapters; it might also hint at the topic of suicide which is referred to at several stages of the novel. Apart from those notions, Barnes’ choice of wording has to be commended at this point. The title imparts a subtle hint of gloom while the beginning of the story doesn’t show any implications of the tragic ending yet – and simultaneously it is constantly letting the reader know that something terrible must be underway.
The ending of the book is actually rather unsatisfying – at least some of the many open ends, could have, in my opinion, been tied up in a more coherent way. The second half of the narrative where Tony starts to chase the truth behind his recollections is rolled out rather slowly, whereas other parts of the story are glossed over. It felt like the balance of events was off at certain points.
Another opposing perspective would be that those choices are attributed to the subjective narrator, who needs to be conceived as unstable in his accuracy and narrow-minded in his focus. Which is absolutely legitimate, but doesn’t satisfy my viewpoint at all.
(And that is the beauty of a having the freedom to an opinion.)
It is hard to decide whether the real centerfold of the narrative is Tony’s friend Adrian or his girlfriend Veronica. One’s nihilist philosophies and perspective on the value of human life are unmatched in their lack of empathy and egocentrism; the other subtly suffers from every possible issue a sociopath would have, but is rather inconsistent in every other regard. Highly intelligent and yet extremely annoying; as independent as she is codependent, and so forth.
When those two characters intertwine, a marvelously dreadful and fascinating thread of events starts to unravel – large parts of which remain unknown to the reader until the very end.
Barnes’ choices on what to show and what to leave in the air certainly make for a good discussion, because few of the key events are wholly disclosed – only hints are made about certain actions or words during heated confrontations. Certainly there is a truth in every recollection, but two sides are so far opposed to each other, that in the end the story seems almost absurd in itself.
Therefore, it is hard to believe anything of what Tony calls his best recollection of his own life. And yet, when truly and honestly reflecting one one’s past, I am thoroughly convinced that all of us share that realisation about some of the most crucial times of our lives.
The Sense of an Ending is a book with advanced psychological layering, to be found out only after careful reflection and repetitive pondering. For that subtle richness alone I would strongly recommend it.
As for the subject matter itself – ideologists and romantics will be very put off by Barnes’ novel, since it has a rather cynical way of showing humans.
I’d love to hear what you think of Barnes’ work in the comment section below.