Thursday 6 September 2018

Review by Robert Richardson of "The Sense of an Ending" by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending, winner of the Man Booker Prize for 2011, is divided into two parts, both narrated by Tony Webster. In part one, Tony recalls significant moments as a sixth former and subsequently a student at Bristol University in the 1960s.

In the second part, it is clear Tony’s vantage point is this century’s first decade. He has a settled life: retired and divorced, though still on good terms with his ex-wife (they have a grown up daughter whose life, in turn, is steady).

Tony’s smooth, if somewhat boring, progress through time is disrupted, and in effect the book’s second part becomes an interrogation of those memories, and their veracity, of his years in late adolescence and as a young adult. This includes an emotionally and sexually frustrated relationship with Veronica, his girlfriend at university. Tony has a humiliating experience when accompanying her on a visit to her parents. On a later occasion, he introduces her to his three close friends from the sixth form. One of them, Adrian, the most intellectually gifted of the group and now a student at Cambridge, is pivotal to the novel. Tony does not take it well when after breaking up with Veronica he receives a letter from Adrian: it lets him know that Adrian is now going out with Veronica. After university, Tony travels in America and returns home to the news that Adrian has committed suicide.

The beginning of the second part has the older Tony receiving, through a solicitor, five hundred pounds and a brief, vague letter as part of the will of Veronica’s mother, who he met only once during that awkward weekend many years before. She has also left him Adrian’s diary, and there follows his attempts to acquire it from Veronica, who is refusing to give it up. Uneasy meetings with Veronica only serve his failure to obtain it.

Adrian, even when dead, has the capacity to grip Tony’s consciousness: his friend’s greater intelligence and heroic existential rejection of life (Adrian was a devotee of Camus) are offset against his own unexceptional personal history. Nevertheless, he discovers Adrian’s suicide was partly grounded in a disturbing reality. I will avoid the detail of this because it would be a “spoiler.” A recent film adaptation also means there is now a choice: to read the novel first and have the “spoiler” for the film, or vice versa.

Barnes’s control of a tight plot and, more especially, of tone are exemplary. Tony is a genuinely decent person, but Barnes makes his narrative voice at times annoying with its trite observations. He becomes a more bearable character when his complacency is undermined, as with the outcome of a meeting with Veronica about the diary. It ends with her handing over a copy of a letter he sent to Adrian about the two of them (Adrian and Veronica) getting together. Through it, Tony has to come to terms with his younger self as peevish and malicious. He had suppressed the memory of this letter, and selectively remembered another he had sent to Adrian, which though bitter was also not as horrible.

Of course there are descriptions of characters, places and situations, but much of the novel is the presentation of relationships, inevitably from Tony’s point of view and, towards the end, his growing appreciation of the problems of others. It might easily have led to a tedious narrative, but this is prevented by the form Barnes adopts: not chapters but a succession of short sections separated by spaces, and he achieves quite a fast moving pace for the unfolding of surprising realisations.

About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (Reaktion Books, London) and Leeds Postcards (Four Corners Books, London). He has recently had a solo exhibition of photographs at the Museu Municipal in Faro, Portugal, and is a member of the Biennale Austria association of contemporary artists.

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