Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of An Ending

Julian Barnes

This book won the 2011 Man Booker Prize, the biggest prize in English literature, so one sets a high standard when reviewing it.  The question is always there:  "Why did this book succeed?"

It is a 'coming of age' novel' in a new sense.    The first few chapters are set in a boy's school and are full of the usual schoolboy concerns about girls and friendships and report cards.  But then the writer switches to a different coming of age - old age.  This is a babyboomer's novel, and maybe that is why it appealed to the jury.  As mature adults are wont to do, Tony, the narrator, looks back at his young self, wondering what those bygone days can tell him about who he has been and what perspective they can bring to his life, now that it is mostly behind him.

The pivotal event in the book is the receiving of a legacy from the mother of an old girlfriend.  This intriguing event leads Tony to revisit that relationship from the perspective of age and subsequent events.  This is a babyboomer's exercise, the reworking of memory, using the knowledge gained from a lifetime of experience.

Further than that, it is hard to say what other qualities make this book exceptional.  There is not much plot, and none of the characters are particularly likeable.  Tony, the narrator, has not had a very interesting life and is not a particularly attractive character.

Veronica, the girlfriend, turns out to be quite different from Tony's perception of her, and Barnes underlines this by giving her a different name.  At the end of the novel, we must rethink all the events of the plot from a different perspective.

This is the theme of the book, the tragedy of judging without knowing the whole story.  But it is difficult to condemn Tony, who responded to information available to him at the time.  There is no way that he could have been expected to know about Veronica's sad situation.  She never treated him considerately so he had no motivation to be more sensitive.   I think this is the problem with the book.  At the end, when Veronica's story is revealed, we have not developed any sympathy for her, so we don't respond strongly .  We cannot condemn Tony, so there is no deep emotional shift.

The tone is nicely understated and introspective.  The structure is well balanced, with a schooldays event repeated in the body of the story.  This is a nice foreshadowing of a pivotal event.  Structurally, the book is well written, it is short and well- paced, and Barnes writes reflectively, inviting his reader to join him in contemplating the nature of contempt, remorse, resentment, and other emotions experienced throughout a lifetime. The nature and reliability of memory and the authenticity  of historical accounts are problems probed and pondered.

The Sense of an Ending is a pleasant, reflective read, with a certain suspense and a lingering bemusement, but is this really the best book written in the English language this year?