Julian Barnes with his novel The Sense of an Ending.
Julian Barnes with his novel The Sense of an Ending. Contributed

Book review: The Sense of an Ending

THE Sense of an Ending is the kind of novel you might need to ponder for a few days before coming to any conclusions.

This is partly because its author, Julian Barnes, leaves a key mystery swirling in ambiguity, and partly because of its uncomfortable theme of the unreliability of our memories as a record of our own histories.

The novel, which won the Man Booker Prize a week ago, is narrated by Tony Webster, a retired Londoner whose recollection of formative events of his youth is slowly unravelled after an unexpected bequest.

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Tony hasn't seen his university girlfriend, Veronica, in more than 40 years, so he is surprised to receive a lawyer's letter informing him that her mother has left him £500 and a diary in her will. He recalls that he met her mother just once, in an uncomfortable weekend spent at their family home.

The diary belongs to Adrian, a formidably intelligent school friend who dated Veronica after she and Tony split, and who committed suicide shortly afterwards, at the age of 22.

At the time, Tony accepted Adrian's death as an act of philosophy: "life is a gift bestowed without anyone asking for it; the thinking person has a philosophical duty to examine both the nature of life and the conditions it comes with; if this person decides to renounce the gift no one asks for, it is a moral and human duty to act on the consequences of that decision".

Tony figures there must be a good reason that Veronica's mother has even remembered him, let alone left him the diary, but the answer doesn't come easily. Veronica has swiped it and is refusing to give it up, taunting him with the phrase: "You just don't get it, do you?"

Tony, whose life between university and retirement has reeked with dullness, seizes on the mystery but as it unravels so too does his belief that his has been a "peaceable" low-impact life.

The book draws heavily on the idea of the shifting sands of memory. From our position inside Tony's head, it's hard to determine how reliable his recollections are. The continual sand-shifting as the novel progressed made me second-guess my own recollection of its early events - which serves to emphasise Barnes's point (though, unlike Tony, I could always flick back a few pages to check).

The book is tightly written and short - more a novella than a novel - but its length is deceptive. I did so much backtracking that I probably ended up reading the equivalent of a full-length novel.

You know you've found a good book-club read when you finish it with an immediate desire to compare notes with other readers. I found myself so flummoxed by the ending that I jumped onto the reader message boards on the Booker Prize site.

It's not a plot spoiler to say that the most obvious interpretation of the book - if you take the last few pages on face value - doesn't make a lot of sense. I don't see that Tony is as responsible for the events of 40 years earlier as he comes to believe he is, and I don't think he can be blamed for not "getting it" when the events to which Veronica refers happened after he severed ties with her.

There are other possible interpretations that would put a more malevolent spin on his involvement in events, but they don't seem to fit the "facts", as far as they can be determined - and believed.

Still, a big part of the satisfaction (and frustration) of this book derives from trying to figure it all out, with only the help of Tony's murky memory, the spare hard evidence and the obtuseness of Veronica. It's one of those intriguing books that insists on clinging to you after you've put it down.

Have you read The Sense of an Ending? I'd be interested to hear your take on it. Feel free to post your comments below, but remember to clearly mark any spoilers.

I might just have to start the whole book again. Meanwhile, my pile of contenders for November feature reads is stacking up. Tune in on Friday when Christine reviews her October feature book, The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje.

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