While reading ‘The Sense of An Ending’, there comes a point, where some readers will experience a wave of anxiety wash over them, making them want to begin chronicling their lives in a diary, so that they won’t be a blank page when they are old and fading. Well, at least that’s how I felt.
The 2011 novel by British author Julian Barnes, is a compelling story of how we twist our memories, to suit how we see our past selves. Like several historians have said, if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth. Barnes’ book is one of those rare novels, where the theme hits you stronger than anything else. You might forget the plot, the characters, perhaps even the climax, but Barnes’ little lesson on human memory might stick around in your head for a long while.
The protagonist Tony Webster, is an ordinary middling man, now in his 60s, recalling his life and friends from school. His school friend Adrian Finn stands out the most, an earnest intelligent boy, seriously philosophizing about life, while his chums joke around. Finn eventually gets a scholarship to Cambridge and the boys barely stay in touch. Tony completely stops talking to Finn, when the latter starts dating Tony’s ex-girlfriend Veronica. However, months later, Finn commits suicide, leaving a note citing existential reasons – he didn’t choose the gift of life, so he chooses to end it. It’s hard to share Tony’s admiration for Finn, like he is some sort of tragic-philosophical-hero, who achieved eternal youth by dying young. Whatever.
Anyway, Tony continues to live an ordinary life, gets married, has a kid, gets an amicable divorce, has grand-kids, and lives a simple enough retired life. But things shake up when Veronica’s mother leaves him money and a diary – Adrian Finn’s diary. But Veronica, who he hasn’t even seen in four decades, refuses to hand it over. So what does the diary hold? And why leave it for Tony? Veronica makes it clear she is not going to simply hand him the diary and Tony is adamant of subtly badgering her about it. As the mystery unfolds, the reader is revealed that Tony’s story isn’t as straightforward as he made it out to be.
Barnes brilliantly depicts how dating and relationships worked in the 1960s, a time when the young folks were caught between the old Victorian morality of staying chaste, and the magic of modern contraception that allowed sexual freedom. However, the perils of accidental pregnancy and the ignominy that follows, still held a lot of horses back. There’s a lot of nostalgic value to the story, especially for anybody who has seen a time when hand-held mobile phones hadn’t penetrated the lives of all classes. In-fact, it’s owing to our digital devices, that our memories have become even more fragile than before, retaining less and less.
Barnes’ writing style is simple, conversational and easy to read. Some of the British slang might be lost on non-UK readers, but there are few such instances, so it doesn’t get annoying. The book is almost novella sized, so there isn’t exactly a lot of space for characters to bloom. And since Tony Webster the protagonist, is also the narrator, the reader has to heavily rely on his account of things and people. And as the story progresses, the reader realizes that Webster may not be a very good judge of character, making his evaluation of all supporting characters questionable.
Towards the climax, Barnes cleverly builds up a lot of intrigue in the plot, almost as if some big terrible secret is going to be unraveled. I had guessed a possible twist early on, and my prediction came true, but not all readers can foresee it. Or maybe I am just being pompous. Fine, maybe it’s slightly predictable for a few readers, so for them the ending will feel a little underwhelming. Barnes leaves us with some barmy philosophical rumination in the last page, and that’s supposed to console the readers who were perhaps hoping for more. Maybe some sort of closure between Veronica and Tony.
At the heart of it, ‘The Sense of An Ending’ is an ordinary tale, about a man forced to confront his past and finding new meanings to old actions. Of having to re-look the way he saw those close to him. Of accepting his mistakes, apologizing, and making peace with himself. And like I said at the beginning, it left me with this need to begin chronicling my life, so I won’t desperately look for lost memories when I am older.
It’s a 4/5 from me.
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