The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes is an odd book.
It got great reviews. It won the Man Booker award. Someone always includes it in comments to Facebook posts that say, “I need a new book to read. Suggestions?” I enjoyed it a lot while I was reading it. I even enjoyed it when I finished it.
But upon a few hours’ reflection, it doesn’t hold up.
The Sense of an Ending is narrated by Tony Webster, a man in his 60s or so, who receives word that he has been left 500 pounds and a diary in the will of the recently-deceased mother of an ex-girlfriend. If that sounds attenuated, it is – and Barnes spends the book exploring Tony’s relationship to the mother, the ex-girlfriend, and the writer of the diary, who was one of his old schoolmates.
It is hard to review this book without including spoilers, so I am being intentionally shadowy on this one. At the beginning of the book, Tony isn’t really honest about his relationships with the ex-girlfriend and the schoolmate, or at least about how those relationships ended. His omissions have some bearing on the mystery of why Tony was bequeathed the diary, and whether or not he actually gets his hands on it.
The Sense of an Ending explores questions about memory and how memories can adapt or be selectively conjured for self-preservation. Tony is an unreliable narrator, as every review of this book points out, because he deliberately includes and omits details that show him in a harsh light, only sharing them when he can’t avoid it any longer. As a result, the reader is never really sure whether he or she is getting the whole story, or what actually transpired. But I think that’s Barnes’ point – our interpretations of our lives and the people in them is necessarily subjective.
Barnes is an eloquent and perceptive writer, with that British style that makes you wonder whether Americans and English people actually speak the same language. He teases out the story slowly enough that you want to keep reading, and there are enough little twists and turns to keep you on your toes.
But. This is a fundamentally simple story, with only a few core questions, and Barnes ultimately doesn’t answer most of them. There’s a big reveal at the end, but I was still left wondering, “What just happened? Did I miss something?” There are too many holes here to be the big mystery that I think it is billed as. And the ending was a little anti-climactic. So while I enjoyed reading The Sense of an Ending, I don’t think it holds up into perpetuity.
I listened to The Sense of an Ending mostly on audio, which was excellent. Great understated British narrator. The downside of audio for this book is that it’s harder to go back and re-read select passages, which I wanted to do fairly frequently, given how Barnes teased out information.