The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

When we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.

How reliable is our memory? How accurate are our thoughts, analysis of situations, perception of people? Yet we live by them and interpret our experiences through their lenses.

The winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending plays with these subjective faculties and crafts a scenario that’s captivating and with a touch of surprise at the end. A man in his 60’s looks back at his life, focusing on what he can remember about his relationships and their aftermath.

In the first part of the book, we see three school buddies in the upper form, the narrator Tony Webster with his classmates Alex and Colin,  happy to befriend a newcomer, Adrian Finn. Obviously superior in brain, insight, and self-composure, Adrian soon becomes the model they look up to. Apart from the pretentiousness of youth in intellectual matters, Tony has to concede that Adrian is indeed  superior material. When asked by the teacher “What is history?”, while Tony gives the relatively pat answer “History is the lies of the victors”, Adrian articulates this thought:

History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.

With these words at the beginning pages of the book, Barnes has quietly laid the enquiry of his story.

Post-secondary life leads them to different paths. Adrian, not surprisingly, gets into Cambridge on scholarship, while Tony goes to Bristol to read history. There, he starts to go out with Veronica Ford. One weekend, Veronica brings him home to meet her family. In Tony’s memory, that is a humiliating episode. He leaves with bewilderment: Veronica’s aloofness, her father’s joking insults, her mother’s mysterious gesture, and her brother’s silent wink.

After that, Tony introduces Veronica to his friends. Naturally, she strikes up a good rapport with Adrian right away, with a common tie of Cambridge where her brother also attends. Later, Tony and Veronica break up.  Adrian soon starts to date Veronica. As usual, Tony seems resigned to his circumstances and  moves on with his own life, and assumedly, others too with theirs… until later he hears the shocking news about Adrian. Time flows by, Tony marries a less mysterious Margaret, has a daughter Susie, and years later, his marriage ends in divorce.

Tony is now retired in his 60’s, expecting a life that’s bland and uneventful. Retired life for him is a natural drift of time, flat and oblivious. But he’s roused by an unexpected letter from a solicitor one day, naming him to receive £500, a bequest in the will of someone he has only met once forty years ago, Veronica’s mother. What’s more intriguing is together with this money, he is to be left with Adrian’s diary.

Life to Tony now is a quest for finding out what had actually happened to these people. His investigation has cast fearful doubts on his own memory and sense of personal history. In his retirement, Tony is awakened to re-interpret his past.

… the history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it’s the most deliquescent.

It will take his whole remaining life to solve the mystery of how real his perceptions are, and what has taken place in the lives of those he once knew as close friends. Such queries only lead to a more taxing question: “Does he play a role in other people’s fate?”

In just 150 pages, Barnes has opened a floodgate of inquiries into our subjective mind, carrying us through with a tantalizing story, towards an ending that, I feel, is a tad bit sensational, however reserved the tone. Nonetheless, I come out of the reading experience marvelling at the power of the economy of words in the hands of a master storyteller.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

The Sense of An Ending by Julian Barnes, published by Random House Canada, 2011, 150 pages.