Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The Sense of an Ending - Julian Barnes

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Despite the many accolades held by this author, I have not read any of his previous works.  I am aware from reading other reviews that this particular book seems to be a departure from his usual style to the point of being unrecognisably his.   The Sense of an Ending won the Man Booker Prize in 2011, and true to form for winners of this award, the book appears to have split opinion.

Written in the first person narration of the character of Tony Webster, the book is arranged in two parts.  In the first, Tony takes us back to his school days in the sixties but when it was "only [the sixties] for some people, only in certain parts of the country". We meet his three friends which include the more serious and intelligent Adrian Finn.  Adrian has joined the group part way through their time at school.  We learn of Tony's first serious relationship during his college years and the subsequent hurt and humiliation he suffers.

In the second half, we are sped forward to a retired Tony who has led a life in which he has developed "an instinct for survival, for self-preservation" and "had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded". He has had a successful career, married, had a daughter and gone through an amicable divorce, remaining friends with his ex.  He has led an ordinary life without risks.

However, when Tony receives a letter from an unknown solicitor he is forced to reassess his life and memories. The mother of his first proper girlfriend has left him documents and a small sum of money. He remembers the humiliation he suffered during his weekend "meeting the parents" at the hands of his girlfriend's brother and father but recalls the mother more kindly.  But why has she remembered him? Why leave him anything? As Tony seeks answers to these questions, he begins to recognise that "what you end up remembering isn't always the same as what you witnessed".  Tony spends most of the novel "just not getting it" but eventually he has to consider whether guilt travels through enough linked chains that he is implicated.

The novel is driven by character rather than plot which some readers can dislike.  However, what better way is there to delve into humanity and a human mind?  This is exactly what The Sense of an Ending does.  As the group of boys approach the end of school in the sixties, they hold philosophical debates to prove their intelligence and worth.  It is almost a way for them to grope in the dark for a sense of who they are.  My only criticism of this book is that I find this younger Tony often jars with the older Tony in part two.  By retirement age, all traces of this side of his character have apparently disappeared.  When it does very occasionally resurface, it feels almost as though the author has slipped back into the voice of Tony is the first part of the novella.  

As sixth-formers, the boys often discuss definitions of history and when Tony recalls Churchill with a statement that history "is the lie of victors", his teacher reminds him that is fine as long as he also remembers it's "the self delusions of the defeated".  This has particular resonance for Tony in his later life when he has to face up to his version of his own history.

This novella, in a short space asks us to think about the reliability of history and question the reliability of our own memories.  Do we really remember events or do we twist them to satisfy our own egos? Why do we not remember certain elements of our life? Why do the detail get lost? 

Time is an important theme throughout and we are asked to view it as irregular rather than a constant, regular ticking.  As Barnes discusses the speed at which we travel through our lives, he uses the novella's structure to  demonstrate: we speed through sections of Tony's life and slow down and examine other parts.

Imagery and language of law are evoked repetitively.  Yet, I have yet to put my finger on why.  Is it used as a contrast to heighten the unreliability of ourselves? To demonstrate that there is often in life, little definite, much that is grey rather than black and white, guilty or not guilty?  The book certainly asks us to consider how far guilt can travel.

Much criticism for this book has come from "not getting it".  Certainly, not all the answers are provided.  some regard the short novella of trying to contain too much.  For me, "not getting it" is part of the meaning of the book and so why should we be given all the answers? There is a sense in this novella of a character trying to grasp hold and concrete something fluid that just flows through your fingers.  The reader is left with this same feeling.  The book raises many questions that I am still pondering days later.  For me, this makes The Sense of an Ending a superb novella.  It remains with me; it has me thinking.  

I very rarely re-read books but this is certainly what I'll be doing with this one.  It has many layers and so much to discover.  I want to spot the clues I missed, question the Larkin references and use of imagery and ponder some more.

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