Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending

For its size, this short novel provoked a surprisingly wide variety of strong responses from the seven of us who met to discuss it. While a couple really enjoyed it, quite a few of us found it either mundane, over intellectual or downright annoying, with one of us wanting to dropkick the characters off the page! We were nearly all startled by the book's ending where we were left wondering what the heck had actually happened. For some this was further annoyance while others had enjoyed rereading from the beginning looking for the clues.

The feeling that we must have all read different books made more sense as we discussed the novel further. One of the main themes is foreshadowed even before we first meet Tony as a schoolboy along with the intellectually precocious Adrian who joins his group of friends. Our narratives about ourselves and our lives change with each telling so that our memories become a construct. This makes Tony an unreliable narrator and he has forgotten and omits crucially important things from the story, such as a viciously cruel letter he wrote to Adrian not long before his suicide. Was his university girlfriend Veronica really the heartless snob he remembered, or an insecure, inhibited girl, undermined by her own mother, who had relaxed enough with him one evening to be able to dance for the first time in her life? No wonder we were confused.

We found much to admire. The novel is beautifully plotted, compactly and cleverly written so that every idea expressed is there for a purpose, even the poem about barn owls and mention of the theme from "A man and a woman". It was noted that the author is skilled at "bringing together threads using small moments". The book is full of pithily worded  and profound ideas and we enjoyed reading out several memorable quotes which I can't reproduce here as my copy had to go back to the Library. Schooldays and the pretentions and insouciance of youth were beautifully evoked, some of the later reflections on ageing all too recognisably true. We noted that Julian Barnes is about our age and thought this helped us to relate to Tony. We wondered how much wiser Tony really was at the end of the book.

We tried to work out exactly what had happened and why. Why had Veronica's mother wanted to will Adrian's diary to Tony? Why did she even have his diary? Why did Adrian kill himself? Some of us felt that no matter how carefully we reread the book we might never be sure. Adrian had remarked with typical precosity “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”  By the end of the book it seems that Tony's memories are seriously flawed, maybe even the opposite of the truth, and we never get to see Adrian's diary (except for a tantalising fragment) to evaluate its adequacy as documentation. But what exactly was the "history" here? Or is that the point? You could easily talk about this book all night.

 "Instead of telling Tony that he'd never "get it", why couldn't Veronica just explain!" was the exasperated exclamation as we moved on to our well-earned and delicious supper.

I got too involved to take proper notes, but this is my (naturally unreliable) memory of the discussion. Please add corrections or whole important points that I've omitted etc.


  1. Well done, Sue. I drafted most of my own post last night but am mulling over how to conclude it. SO much to say about such a short novel. Sign of a great novella I reckon when that happens.

  2. I must say I thought I did know what happened at the end of the novel ... though I wasn't, as you say here, completely convinced that I knew why.

    We also talked about the humour --- there are some very funny bits. I loved the way the whole story turned on just a few incidents.

    Oh and I think your memory has been reliable.

  3. Thanks Sue. Yes, we enjoyed the humour. You also mentioned the two part structure and symmetries such as the two suicides. The ending - yes I even thought I'd worked out why. It felt as though the author had thought through every word extremely carefully, really respected his readers, wasn't just teasing with the many subtle clues and wanted us to think and reread until we "got it" on the mystery level which would contribute to understanding the themes he was developing. I wish we'd had time to analyse the use of the term "blood money" for example.

  4. I always like looking at symmetries ...

    I could have written a 3000 word essay on this one I reckon.

  5. Great comments ladies. It was a great book to discuss, and though I felt he is a bit over-intellectual and clever, while not really letting us warm to the characters much, he does write beautifully, and constructs I think a series of humorous, poignant and thought provoking episodes in this novella. And from one of unreliable memories, and a lover of history I can relate to the points he makes about being caught up in our own frame of reference and being slow to see the perspective of others. Well worth reading.

  6. The middle-aged narrator, prematurely retired by American standards, in his early sixties, commences to reflect on his first love, and, properly divorced and available, becomes entangled in the lover's possible remergence in his life. As his introspection unfolds there is danger and error in understanding what had transpired in the course of youth. The momentum of the novella is exquisite beginning with mundane calm and escalating to anxious puzzlement and a surprise dénouement.

    Not a coming of age story, though much at the front concerns the narrator's mates and other girlfriends, but a disquisition on the perils of wistful reflection. Rewinding the read, Barnes has the protagonist doomed from the start. Beautiful novella.

    1. Thanks for commenting Luxembourg. Love your description of its being "a disquisition on the perils of wistful reflection". I do think though that one could argue "coming of age" as well ... albeit not the traditional coming-of-age we've come to expect.

  7. I loved this book very much too. Lovely writing, and some beautiful quotes that really made me think a lot. You are right, this is a book to read and re-read :)


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