When you have that rare opportunity to spend a few uninterrupted hours in a favourite chair with a relaxing beverage; when your mind is pensive, reflective and nostalgic; consider rewarding yourself by sharing that moment with the gorgeous novel The Sense of an Ending
Three school chums – Tony, our narrator, Alex and Collin attend the sort of private school that, as intellectually-minded bibliophiles, we all would have loved to have experienced. Although, if we had, we probably would not have appreciated it at the time. The Socratic Method is very much in play as students and teachers discuss, debate, expound and argue their way through philosophy, literature and history. These early passages in the novel are the best as it reminds you of your love of learning, reading and intelligent conversation.
With the arrival of Adrian, an enigmatic, highly intelligent and socially unconventional boy, the other three feel they have found a natural fourth to their group. But Adrian’s different sense of humour, his intimidating intellect and his ability to approach questions from obtuse angles makes him as much a curiosity and a talisman as a peer. While they expect great things will come for Adrian, the others are anxious and expectant of their future and wonder how much real life will resemble literature.
After leaving school, the boys naturally drift apart and naturally try to counter its inevitability. Tony, relates to us his university experiences, particularly a brief relationship with a girl named Veronica. Again, author Julian Barnes has expertly recreated the familiar world of awkward social encounters, fumbled early sexual experiences and the frustrations every young man experiences of trying to make sense of the irrationality of young women.
The story is being told by a Tony who is now past middle-age, divorced and barely enjoying his simple, somewhat pathetic, existence. He has been brought to reminiscing about his youth by a strange event. Veronica’s mother, who he only met once, has died and has left Tony the journal of his former schoolmate Adrian in her will. Once again his over-analytical mind begins working over the events of his life, trying to uncover something in his past that will make sense of this present.
This, simply, is the major theme of this elegant, intriguing and nostalgic little novel – the nature of history and whether we can trust it. Can individuals wield any influence, were the events inevitable, guided by stronger forces, or is it all due to random chaos? Even if we have answers to these questions, what can we make of it? How can we tell which facts and events are relevant and which are not? How much of the narrative is apologetic, rationalised or self-serving?
Barnes litters the story with these questions so skilfully, adding mysterious metaphors and symbols, almost toying with the reader, that he has left many unsure what to make of the ending of the novel. Given all the issues he raises with the nature of history can we really trust Tony’s story? Is Tony’s narration reliable? Is it also self-serving? Has he, or the reader, overlooked something?
Barnes has played this game with the reader well. Some stories end disappointingly; you can be left feeling that all the build up, anticipation and intrigue led to not very much. Other stories provide ample reward for those who stick with it. Readers of this novel will be left with another feeling. It reminded me a little of The Reluctant Fundamentalist – you are left feeling a little ill-at-ease with the ending and have a compulsion to read the novel again. This is a story that is more about the journey than the destination, but despite the uncertainties you are left with, he does not necessarily leave you unsatisfied.
The Sense of an Ending is a sumptuous novel, to be read leisurely, while it arouses pensive and nostalgic feelings in the reader.
Did it deserve to win the Booker Prize?
In a word, yes. But I will leave my overall thoughts on the 2011 Booker Prize and the worthiness (or otherwise) of the shortlisters and the winner for my next post.