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The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

There are books, and then there are books. There are some few books that, when we get to the end, we breath, Wow – and sit quietly for a moment with wonder. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes is one. This novel won the prestigious Man Booker recently and I understand why.

The novel opens with memories, and reflection. Through the eyes of an older Tony Webster, we meet the schoolboy Tony and his friends, at a time when a new boy, Adrian Finn, enters their lives. Adrian Finn’s charm and intelligence capture the attention of the school masters, and Tony and his circle. Adrian, in fact, becomes the centre of Tony’s life although he does not yet know it.

Julian Barnes is 65 years old and the time about which he writes is his own time. I found it unsettling that he writes about Tony, who so obviously grew up in the same years as Julian Barnes himself, as a man looking only back at his life, rather than forward. I’d like to think that 65 is not an age at which one thinks that life is over – but perhaps it is a time to put things right before it is too late.

The Sense of an Ending presents readers with a couple of uncomfortable things to think about. There is the suicide of a school boy, and later another of a young man. We all read Albert Camus in those days, as do some few intense young literary people now. Suicide, the “only true philosophical question” – or only a way to escape the fear of facing the consequences of one’s actions, at a time of great emotional distress or depression.

Anthony Webster’s first love was a rather difficult young woman, Veronica. All Tony really wanted in those days (should I say, of course?) was sex. Not quite as easy to come by as it would be only a few years later. Veronica entranced and puzzled Anthony, and ultimately rejected him to be with Adrian. Tony writes a bitter and very nasty letter to the couple and moves on. He marries, has a family, divorces and lives a rather quiet, undisturbed life – until he is named in a will as the person who has been chosen to inherit Adrian’s diary.

Veronica is now drawn back into his life, after 40 years, and memories of their time together return. He is obsessed with what this diary might contain, and with a desire to re-examine his relationship with Veronica. We all know the stories of people who re-visit the “affairs” of their past, the people with whom they had sex, loved and left. Are they attempting to understand who they were at that time in their lives, are they trying to recapture that young, perhaps slimmer and trimmer, more idealistic and less worn person they once were, by contacting someone they were besotted with 40 years earlier? Do people change? Veronica certainly still seems to be playing games and Tony, stupidly in my opinion, allows himself to be part of it all – again.

Tony is such a self-absorbed man, still carrying around the baggage of his teenage years, his unresolved bitterness and anger – still feeling slighted. Of course, Tony, is simply a character in a novel, I remind myself, so irritated and disgusted by his behaviour that I wish I could give him a good shake, as does his very patient ex-wife.

The wonder of the novelist is how he has taken words and made these characters so real. Julian Barnes is a writer who loves words, carefully crafting them into sentences, resulting in an outstanding novel, word by word, sentence by sentence. The Sense of an Ending is slight in size, but is huge in content. The novel ends with the words “There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest”. No wonder this book rose above the rest to win the 2011 Man Booker Prize.

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