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Author: Julian Barnes
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Man Booker Prize 2011
This compact yet weighty novel from Julian Barnes took me a while to ease into when I read it a couple of years ago for an English literature class. There was plenty to turn me off: an ‘old white male’ narrator looking back on his yesteryears, plenty of stuffy British academia, jacking off into sinks etc. But what Barnes does with the last third of the book is really quite stunning, and had me reassessing all the biased judgements I had made previously.
The narrator of the story, Tony, is retired, divorced, and living a quiet, rather uneventful life. He begins remembering his schooldays and a particular friend, Adrian. Adrian was different from the other boys at school—he seemed sure of himself and wise beyond his years—and Tony admires him.
Tony and Adrian finish school and head off to different universities, but remain friends. Tony finds himself a girlfriend, Veronica, and they endure a fumbling relationship. Not long after their breakup, Tony receives a letter from Adrian informing him that he and Veronica are now dating. After sending a cold reply, Tony cuts off all contact with Adrian. Several months later, he learns that Adrian has committed suicide. It is forty years later when documents turn up that set Tony on the path of discovering what led his friend to take his own life.
The Sense of an Ending deals with the blind spots and the revisions of memory, and how events from the past can change upon recollection. It also examines the foolishness of youth and the wisdom we can gain with age. Stodgy Tony became to me, if not likable, at least sympathetic as a character. He is a man stumbling in the dark of events that took place forty years ago, with the things that he assumed to be true thrown up into the air. Barnes has deftly put us in the same position as his narrator, reassessing what we know and changing our perception. This is a novel which has stayed with me long after reading, pondering the nature of memory and how we can be so misled by ourselves.