Monday, 24 March 2014

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

 “This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn't turn out to be like Literature.”

I don't read a lot of contemporary fiction and just happened picked this one up on a whim at the library. This might be a short novel  that can easily be read in one sitting (clocks in at 150 pages) but it is very well-written, full of powerful pithy observations about memory, adolescence, love, friendships, aging, remorse and death--in essence, Barnes is able to effectively tap into the many joyous and painful experiences that accompany one's life. Here is one of many quotes that bowled me over: 

"For the most of us, the first experience if love, even if it doesn’t work out—perhaps especially when it doesn’t work out—promises that here is the thing that validates, that vindicates life. And though subsequent years might alter this view, until some of us give up on it altogether, when love first strikes, there’s nothing like it, is there? Agreed?” 

Well said, Mr. Barnes. The novel is full of these wonderful insights, making it a delightful and worthwhile read but a winner of the Man Booker Prize? Nah. I wouldn't go that far. While Julian Barnes should be commended for his understated meditation on memory and engaging psychological character study, the story leaves much to be desired. Written in the first-person, the novel opens with the narrator  reflecting on some fragmented memories that connect to his childhood relationship with Adrian Finn, an intelligent and precocious schoolmate whom he greatly admires. However, it soon becomes apparent that Tony is trying to reconstruct the past in order to make sense of the present but his memories are distorted with the passage of time. The novel takes on the form of a mystery in which the narrator is searching for answers but they are hidden within repressed memories so he must plunge deep into his murky consciousness in order to extract the truth. Barnes is keen to emphasizes the dichotomy between history and memory. Adrian Finn believes that history "is that certainty produced at that point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation" (59) whereas Tony has a more solipsistic view: "History is the lies of the victors or is it the self-delusions of the defeated?" (122). It is important to keep these two opposing viewpoints in mind since fact and fiction are constantly blurred. Tony cannot be trusted as a reliable narrator, his memories being altered by time and  manipulated by own consciousness in order to repress the truth of having a painful past.

Unfortunately, Barnes isn't as clever as he might think he is and the story falls apart in the final few pages once the true revelations come to light. For me, the "twist" ending is ludicrous, one of those WTF kind of moments that ruins the entire novel. 'Tis is a shame because everything up to this point is surprisingly great. Thus, I will eschew from revealing too much about the plot for anyone interested in checking this one out.   As a fan of brevity, Barnes is able to construct an adequate novel with great insight, sardonic wit and humor that is compelling enough for a quick read but not one that leaves an indelible impression.  


  1. I read this one when it was on the Booker shortlist and the way it was written, I could guess it would be the winner - or maybe I think I could, now that I know. I liked reading this book, it was funny and insightful and thought I'd love it. I almost did until that "twist" came and I was just left wondering what the hell had happened. Your review perfectly captures what I felt.

  2. The story's facade is simple, refined almost to monotony and dependent on the revelation of a secret towards the ending. But what is hidden between the lines is far more chaotic—and likely to leave the reader anxious for days after finishing the book. I loved that the book made me really think about regret, and repentance. It also made me think about the idea that we are always dishonest narrators of our own lives. And the book was very disturbing that it made me think about how easy it is to think you are one kind of person, when you are actually not and how universal human frailty is.
    The ending was excellent that it left me lost in the lines, sitting there, recollecting all the little pieces of story back together in my mind. And it left me chaotic and disturbed for days after finishing the book.

  3. I appreciate your insight Neha. You made me think more heavily about the intricacies that the author attempts to convey.