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[447] The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

” What did I know of life, I who had lived so carefully? Who had neither won nor lost, but just let life happen to him? Who had the usual ambitions and settled all too quickly for them not being realized? Who avoided being hurt and called it a capacity for survival? ” (Part Two, 142)

The Sense of an Ending is a literary mystery of memory and missed opportunity. Tony Webster is a cautious, divorced man in his 60s who “had wanted life not to bother him too much” (99) and has succeeded. He never consummated his relationship with Veronica, whom he dated in college, and turned spiteful when she was courted by his best friend, Adrian Finn. When Adrian committed suicide shortly after he graduated, Tony accepted the reason for his terminating life with no doubt—one that was philosophical and apropos of someone who had looked ahead and wider around in life. But there is more Tony never knew, nor would he imagine.

But time . . . how time first grounds 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. Time give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical. (Part Two, 93)

He met, married, and eventually divorced from a woman whom he knew he wouldn’t mind losing. He always maintained a distance for fear of risking loss. Avoidance becomes a way of way, a forte. Life for Tony is more about safety than emotional investment. An unexpected bequest (diary of his long-deceased friend Adrian) from an old woman—Veronica’s mother—jolts him out of his complaisant calm and forces him to contend with mislaid facts and memories of his youth. What has begun as a determination to obtain the property bequeathed to him has morphed into something much larger: a haunting awakening and an unwelcome corroboration of what he was, or has been.

But we don’t love many people in this life. One, two, three? And sometimes we don’t recognise the fact until it’s too late. Except that it isn’t necessarily too late. (Part Two, 119-120)

As Tony slowly assembles his willfully forgotten past impressions and actions, the novel sustains a gripping suspense and tension. The origin of the bequest and the truth it beholds make Tony see the fraudulence of his discretion. His fault does not lie in his being chippy, jealous and malign because it’s almost common practice that we’re at our most hurtful being young and sensitive. Tony’s tragedy is that he avoids deep connection rather than embracing it, for fear of risking its loss. Short but definitely not slight, The Sense of an Ending is a poignant portrait of the costs and benefits of time passing, of friendship and love, in particular love, how it validates and vindicates life. The unreliable narrator, safe in his comfort and guard, is a mystery to himself. He becomes the people whom he fears: reacts to hurt by avoiding further damage in life, at whatever cost. How pitiful that the best years are behind him before he’s even understood what life is about.

150 pp. Vintage UK Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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10 Responses

  1. Beautiful review Matt. You make me want to read the book.

  2. It is a gorgeous review. I’ve seen nothing but good about this book, but somehow you make it seem all the more compelling.

  3. I will be reading this one!

  4. Excellent review, Matt! This book was one of my favorites of 2011. I’ll definitely be reading more by Barnes.

  5. I read this book several months ago and have tried to express my admiration for it to several friends. From now on, I’ll simply refer them to your beautiful review. Thank you, Matt.

  6. […] Booker Prize and is one of the books on the short list that I want to read. Gavin of Page247 and Matthew of A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook both give it worth reading reviews. Matthew calls the novel, “a poignant portrait of the […]

  7. […] [447] The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes […]

  8. […] [447] The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes […]

  9. You have obviously read the NYT review because much of your wording comes from that review. You should be careful about borrowing from other writings without giving due credit.

  10. […] 2010 Howard Jacobson The Finkler Question (UK) 2011 Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending (UK)* Review Share this:StumbleUponRedditPrintMoreTwitterFacebookEmailDiggLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

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