The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

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I’ve always liked Julian Barnes’ writing but I’ve read only a few of his books.  The Sense of an Ending reminded me of how skillfully he strings together ideas in the guise of a narrative. The book is an examination of life and of several particular lives through the prism of one character’s point of view. The title refers to a philosphical question, the experience of aging, and the factual end of a life inexplicably cut short. It could have been deadly dull inhabiting the mind of a late middle-aged, middle-class British guy but Barnes is too good for that. The book was almost a page-turner. 

Tony Webster recalls his high school friendships and the Big Questions of adolescence with extraordinary clarity. The rest of his life has played out with amicable events–a career, a marriage, a child and household, a divorce–nothing too angsty or uncivilized. He thinks he is at peace with his world although niggling doubts about the meaning of it all sneak in around the edges. And then a missive from the blue drops him back into the relationships and confusion of his first love and most fascinating friend, opens the subject of suicide and the subjective or objective nature of it, and teases him with a truth that remains elusive but tantalizing.

Barnes creates compelling characters from what could be standard-issue sixties, middle-class Brits. The students don’t dare too much in the physical world–they live half in the mindset of the fifties and are definitely not rockers or hippies or even remotely trendy. They do test ideas relentlessly, wonder about the reliability of memory and history, and are incredibly snobby about intellectualism. As young people, Tony and his friends are self-absorbed and a little clueless. Well, one of them isn’t all that clueless but his glittering aura goes somewhat tarnished over time.  A first love is suitably nerve-wracking but oddly off-balance. Two tragic deaths seem unrelated but have more in common than first revealed. What Tony discovers holds no satisfaction and no solace but he is an earnest guy who tries to do the right thing and it’s easy to forgive his stumbling around and wish him well.

The Big Answer in The Sense of an Ending flattens the exalted worship of theory and makes sense of the anguished reactions to both random damage and logical consequences. Julian Barnes won the Booker Prize for this novel and  it is so accomplished and polished a story that it is easy to understand why.

The Sense of an Ending [Deckle Edge] (Vintage International)   Julian Barnes | Alfred A. Knopf   2011

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