A new addition to the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list, Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is the tale which chronicles the nature of friendships, relationships and the actions which impact irrevocably upon those bonds.
Barnes’ novel breathes life into Toni Morrison’s claim that, ‘[a]nything dead coming back to life hurts.’ Through the life of protagonist Tony Webster, Barnes explores the concept of cause and effect, the notion of the self and identity, and the taking responsibility for one’s actions. Memory is a central theme within the novel, and the boundaries between what actually happened and what and how we choose to remember highlight the fallibility of humans. Our memories are impacted by our engrained ideologies – the very goggles through which we see the world, and to every individual their experience is quintessentially unique than that of anyone else.
A Sense of an Ending compellingly navigates remuneration upon a relationship of Tony Webster’s past. The facts of his life are simple and recognizable to the everyman. Whilst at school Tony had two close friends, later joined by a fourth, Adrian Finn, who was more intelligent than the others. As they age they lose contact with one another. Tony marries, has a daughter, gets a divorce, and ends up living alone in an apartment, resigned to the fact that his life is in its later years. His life is ordinary and he spends his time volunteering at a local hospital and ruminating on his past. In particular, he thinks about his ex-girlfriend Veronica, whom he dated as a university student, at whose family home he once spent a weekend. During the weekend, he had felt incongruous, socially inferior, physically out of step with those around him. After their break up, Veronica begins dating Cambridge University student and Tony’s friend, Adrian. And this is the event upon which Tony cannot stop thinking in his latter years, particularly in light of the fact that a few months after that, Adrian committed suicide.
In the second part of this short novel, Tony is retired and resigned to an ordinary life ‘not to bother [him] too much…Average at life; average at truth; morally average’, and he spends the majority of this part of his life, and the book, focused on Adrian and getting access to Adrian's diary which was left to him in mother of Veronica, Sarah Ford's will.
Attempting to contact Veronica through various channels to discover why he was left the sum of £500 in addition to his long dead friend's diary, Tony becomes obsessed with gaining these answers, and insight into why Adrian committed suicide. Whilst conversing with Veronica, Tony is told that '"You just don't get it, do you? You never did, and you never will."'
In this statement, Veronica is right. As the truth is gradually unveiled to Tony, he grapples with understanding what he sees unfolding before him. Making a number of guesses at the truth, Tony eventually discovers that following the letter he sent to Adrian and Veronica led to the complicated and confused outcome that became his past and Adrian's ending.
'I could scarcely deny its authorship or its ugliness. all I could please was that I had been its author then, but was not its author now. Indeed I didn't recognise that part of myself from which the letter came. but perhaps this was simply further self-deception.'
Tony's letter was the starting flame to all that burned afterwards. He was responsible for the incomprehensible equations that Adrian mediated upon in the one diary page Tony was permitted to read.
The equations were Adrian's method of trying to decode the complex situation he was in. 'It was obvious now...I replayed the words that would forever haunt me. As would Adrian's unfinished sentence. "So, for instance, if Tony..." I knew I couldn't change, or mend, anything now.'
Tony's letter had significant ramifications for all of these characters that live upon on the outskirts of Tony's memory throughout the duration of his life, until he has time to devote to rectifying his rose-tinted memories.
The novel albeit brief, truly packs a punch and sends the reader on a truly emotional journey. The tragic nature to the unfolding of this story will keep you hooked until you discover the answer to Adrian's equation, the answer to why Veronica is quite so angry at Tony, and who the young man that knows Veronica as Mary truly is.
Barnes' novel of 177 pages is a short read but a compelling one. The explanation unveiled is unexpected and derived from the actions of a jealous and angry Tony during his youth. A letter exacting such precise revenge in a ripple effect impacting upon the lives of so many others.
The only issue I had with it was that there were parts where Barnes’ characters did not seem tangibly human. There was always a distance between how a human would behave in a situation and how Barnes opts to manipulate his characters. Understandably, his characters are vehicles for evoking his messages concerning the known and unknown; the past and it’s impact upon the present to the reader; however, at times his characters seemed to be caricatures rather than authentic.
I would truly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys mystery and appreciates the complex nature of human memory. the book is a homage to the indistinct nature of a human being's capacity to remember events as they truly are or how they wished them to be, as well as holding a strong resonance for the concept of regret in all manner of forms.