When Julian Barnes’ elegantly crafted novel, “The Sense of an Ending,” won England’s 2011 Man Booker Prize, I vowed to read it immediately. Yet that little book with its puzzling title by an author I’d not yet read simply remained on my list. I now see I’ve been missing something special. The narration of the aging protagonist, Tony Webster, allowed me to listen in on Barnes’ first-class mind as Tony reviews his life and his role in relationships.
Tony narrates the story from the present when he is in his mid-60s, divorced but still friends with his ex-wife Margaret and in occasional contact with their grown daughter Susie. The book has only two chapters. In the first section, Tony reflects on his school days where the seeds of the story are sewn. It unrolls at the pace of Tony’s admittedly unreliable yet often hysterically funny memories of the times when he and his two chums Alex and Colin barely tolerated their lessons and had “fervently innocent discussions” about girls, life and sex.
When the three “were already beginning to imagine [their] escape from school into life,” Adrian, an unusually intelligent but unknowable new student, entered school. The threesome absorbed him mindlessly into their group, although he was so unlike them.
Tony says, “The three of us considered school sports a crypto-fascist plan for repressing our sex drive; Adrian joined the fencing club and did the high jump. We were belligerently tone-deaf; he came to school with his clarinet.”
At university the friends grew apart and Tony labored through a relationship with a high-strung and critical girlfriend Veronica. After that, life took over and they lost contact.
In the second chapter, the aging Tony reveals the reason for delving into his past. He was notified that he is to receive an inheritance from someone he’s not seen for decades and barely knew. I won’t identify the person to spoil the story, but this action involves both Adrian and Veronica.
A diary has also been bequeathed to him that he assumes will help him understand, but the person holding it will not release it. To make sense of the whole situation, Tony must go back to the days when his two old friends were in his life.
It is fascinating to watch how Barnes explores the role of memory through Tony’s dilemma. Tony must throw out the usual memory loops he has ascribed to these two old friends and also understand that his memories have served only to make him comfortable.
He decides to step out of his usual passive ways and engage with Veronica, who holds the answers to this mysterious bequest. This leads to a spectacularly inventive and shocking ending that will keep book clubs talking for hours.
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