27 November 2011

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

I honestly have no excuse not to read Parrot and Olivier in America - yes it's stuck on my broken kindle but aunt Hwee did lend me her hard copy, two inches thick and all.  It's just that its size is hardly inviting, especially when compared to Julian  Barnes' compact little bestseller that's making headlines everywhere now.  So with my sincerest apologies to Peter Carey, and a promise that I will finish reading Parrot and Olivier if it kills me, here's my review of the Booker's recently declared winner.

The Sense of an Ending was surprisingly easy to read for something so thought-provoking.  Barnes writes about the imperfection of memory; the way it beguiles and deceives.  The narrator is Tony Webster, well past middle-aged and looking back at a particular point in his life, trying to make sense of the things that happened during a tumultuous time.  What he remembers and what actually happened are, of course, quite separate matters.

Webster's tracing of events is triggered by a letter he receives from a lawyer regarding an unusual bequest.  The central character of his narrative is a childhood friend, Adrian Finn, who joins Webster's group of friends sometime during high school.  Webster makes it clear that from the early days Adrian may have been a part of the group but he also stood apart from the rest.  Whether this detachment became more distinct in Webster's mind with the benefit of hindsight the reader does not know.  What follows on from high school is page-turning material which I shall not elaborate further on here.

Barnes' title is clever.  First he plays on the word 'sense', just as Austen did in Sense and Sensibility - it means correctness (as in, "an ending that makes sense") as well as intuition (as in "he sensed an ending").  There is a revelation at the end of the novel that puts the jigsaw pieces of Webster's memory together so that it all makes sense in the end.  Also there is a sense, both by Webster and the reader throughout the course of the novel, of a story about to culminate in a shocking way.  The sense makes sense, because of course Barnes also plays on the word 'ending', to mean both a conclusion (of a story) and death.

More than the title, this truly is a tidy piece of work that unfolds in a deceptively simple way.  In fact, Barnes has constructed a complex and beautiful origami.  I love the originality of the opening paragraph: it is a list of Webster's memories as snapshots - exactly the way we remember things - every one of which you can tick off as you progress along the novel.  The first couple of pages are packed with observations that you can't help but agree with.  For instance:

Is there anything more plausible than a second hand?  And yet it only takes the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time's malleability.  Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally it seems to go missing - until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.

The closing is inspired too.  The last sentence brings us back to the beginning, as one might perhaps expect of all literary texts worth their salt, but it also combines tragedy with comedy in a way which reminds us one is never far off from the other.

One last thing to say: Barnes' first person narrative is first class.  Perspective is everything: the way that Webster presents himself is much more flattering than the objective reality, and this is neatly confirmed by Barnes by working in a letter written by Webster to Adrian - perhaps the high watermark of the novel - that reveals much more of Webster's character than anything Webster has to say about himself.

Yep, The Sense of an Ending is a testament to the notion that good things do come in small packages.


  1. i've been carrying this book with me for months and not yet read a single page ... time to get cracking! so, will save this review till after i have finished it *resist, resist, resisting ..*

  2. finally i finished it. indeed a page-turner - i even read it while walking from the mrt train all the way to the bus-stop. it was a miracle i didnt trip. thanks for your explanation of the 'sense' in the title. if not, i'd still be mulling and making no sense of it. i agree with your observation that the book is packed with observations that we cant help but agree. his narrative is flowery yet simple - if this makes any sense.