‘The Sense of an Ending’: Julian Barnes

Memory – a reward for having lived a life, having lived it with others, having lived it through events of varying consequences – how trustworthy is it? Sometimes we remember only a smell or a posture and forget the face, or when we meet a person on the street we remember the face - even after years - but cannot find a name to match it. But more often what we remember is only our own response to events, feelings of pleasure or distress without being able to recall the events themselves that had caused them. Tony Webster, the protagonist of the novel 'The Sense of an Ending', faces a similar predicament as he tries to reconstruct the past and has only his imperfect memory to assist him.

This short novella begins with four carefree schoolboys philosophizing earnestly on the meaning of existence, love and death. With time, they have to grow up and get on with living their lives, whether it fits into their philosophy or not. Tony Webster, who is one of the four boys, recalls events from his childhood, youth and later old age to provide a window to look at these occurrences. His biases and inaccuracies affect the stories conveyed to the reader making him an unreliable narrator. But in a paradoxical way he also comes through as very trustworthy and open, and we begin concerning ourselves with his well being. Then life throws a few curveballs at him and his friends, and the seemingly straightforward events take on an entirely different tone.

Time and memory couple tightly in this novella just like they do in real life. Time creates, distorts and erases memory while memory has its own way of twisting time. Communication is also an important theme in the novel. Sometimes a piece of communication is an occurrence in the background and sometimes it presents a cliffhanger.

Barnes’ writing is very beautiful and very lucid. A major chunk of the novel is peaceable, uneventful, without the thrust of a suspenseful plotline. The strength of his prose is that he makes this portion very enjoyable and makes you believe that an un-dramatic, modest way of living can be very satisfying too.
What left me slightly dissatisfied was the latter part of the novel. Here Barnes changes the pace of the narration and the suspense in the plotline takes the charge. I would have perhaps been happier with a more muted ending than the startling one that Barnes has presented.

I enjoyed reading this novel immensely. I was completely captured by the writing style and loved the subtle humor that Barnes so adroitly presents in unexpected places. I recommend this novel highly for the beauty and simplicity of its prose, and the depth and sensitivity of its theme.

Here’s the link to the Kindle download. It can also be bought from Flipkart in India.

12 comments:

Andrew Blackman said...

Hi Nivedita,

Nice review! I have been thinking of reading this book ever since it was longlisted for the Booker Prize, and this really helped me make up my mind to do it. I've enjoyed Barnes's writing in a couple of other books, although A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters was not my favourite as it seems to be for so many other people!

Nivedita Barve said...

Thanks Andrew!
I am glad you found the review helpful. I was actually planning to take up 'A History ...' since I enjoyed this one. Your remark has made me further intrigued :) Will let you know how I find it!

Mrs. B. said...

I was also unsatisfied with the latter part and the ending. I still have so many questions. I enjoyed this book but the more I analyzed it the less I liked it. I just reviewed it at my blog.

Nivedita Barve said...

Hi Mrs. B.
I just read your review. I agree with so many of your observations! Glad to have read it. Thanks for sharing!

Mrs. B. said...

Thanks for linking to my blog. I'm following you too. I see you've just started book blogging. I'm sure you will enjoy it. Looking forward to reading more from you.

litlove said...

I'm generally a big fan of Barnes, although there have been novels of his (The Porcupine springs to mind) that I just couldn't get through. I think he's a brilliant writer, but not always a great plotter, and so less plot is better in his books than more - it gives him freedom to exercise his amazingly playful verbal skills. I own a copy of this and am looking forward to it - thank you for the lovely, sensitive review!

Nivedita Barve said...

Thanks Litlove!
Hope you like this one. I am really amazed by how he can make a simple plot work so well. I agree with you so much.

Joel said...

A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters is a completely different book. Erudite and playful, but not what I'd call humane. I'd point you to Arthur & George next (or, if you like the postmodern, Flaubert's Parrot.)

I've also put up a review of The Sense of an Ending - here, if you are interested.

Nivedita Barve said...

Hi Joel,
Thanks for the recommendations! I will add these to my Barnes TBR list :)

umashankar said...

Guess I am rather late here but that doesn't disqualify me from commenting anyway.

I have been reading Barnes for sometime and he is unquestionably one of the best. And I was quite smitten by the way he has played with the malleability of time and memories in the book in question. I beg to disagree with you where you say you'd have preferred a muted ending. Granted it (the ending) is a bit out of sync with the overall pace of the novel but a 'muted ending' would have taken the sting out of the novella. It forced me to read it again.

Meera said...

Human relations are complicated. And human emotions are much more complicated. WHY ? coz most of the times we ourselves don’t know how will we react to particular situation. We surprise ourselves.

Memories are still more complicated and tricky. We unconsciously and conveniently alter them and present it for others (sometimes for ourselves) the way we want... rather the way IT EXACTLY WAS!!

Initially author tries to give different definitions of history through different characters of the story about some great political events of the past and then the way he uses those definitions to the history a common man creates out of his own life may not be of much importance to others. But YES, each and every man creates history in his own way!!

“The sense of an ending” is one book which tells a simple story but the complications of relationships, emotions and altering memories to write our own history the way we wanted it to be.

In authors own words “What you end up remembering isn't always the same as what you have witnessed.”

The discussions which are there in the book makes us think about many aspects of life. And sometimes forced me to think and accept ignorance is bliss. The more we know or think about life, the complicated it becomes.

All in all, this entire book is a master piece and worth every bit of appreciation and awards it has received!!

Neha said...

I just finished "The Sense of an Ending" and was left stunned. There are books that leave the reader thinking about it for weeks, this is one of those. The mystery unfolds slowly, and we as readers are given the same facts as protagonist is. Everything is filtered through Tony's fractured memories. This is a book that will stay with me a long time.

The story is in two parts. First, the protagonist's English schoolboy experiences with friends, love, debate, and doubt. Then second, his agonies in retirement of constantly reinterpreting past conversations, an enigmatic inheritance, a diary page, and his own forty-year old letter.

===SOME LINES FROM THE BOOK===
"But time... how time first grinds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them."

"History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation," and "We make an instinctive decision, then build up an infrastructure of reasoning to justify it. And call the result common sense."
===END===

With some of the most stunningly simple, illustrative sentences, Barnes tells a tale of youth and the outcome of it years later. Brings into questions of how we see, what is memory, is reality real, and life, is it worth living, or too hard? When is it so difficult that some take the exit door rather than the challenge--how much of a challenge is too much. Delightful read, quick and easy to read in a day or two; with much to ruminate about for weeks to come.