Winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, Britain’s most prestigious fiction award, The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes, is a philosophical mystery story that morphs into a morality tale. The mystery is not so much about “who done it” as it is about what really happened and why.
One of the most highly regarded British writers working today, Barnes was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for three previous novels. He has also received numerous other awards, among them the William Somerset Maugham Prize for an outstanding first book, Metroland, (1980), a novel that, like this one, focuses on coming of age, sexual initiation, responsibility and philosophical angst. Barnes has published extensively, including several well-received detective novels (under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh.) Of the novels published under his own name, those best known in the United States are A History of the World in 10? Chapters (1989) and Flaubert’s Parrot (1984).
Much of the pleasure of The Sense of an Ending lies in watching Tony Webster, an obtuse and unreliable narrator, try to unravel the mysteries of his youth and so remove the blinders from his adult eyes. The novel feels less like a story and more like a discursive memoir, which gives the book a sense of authenticity. But it also makes the reading slow going. Readers should know, however, that the sluggishness of the first half of the novel speeds up to a crescendo of galvanizing, page-turning events that more than reward a reader’s patience.
The novel brims with metaphysical musings and striking details. Long, breathless sentences are followed by short, punchy sentences, sometimes single words, adding an ironic commentary and a kind of poetry to the text. Barnes impeccably melds dialogue with description to drive the story line forward, generating suspense with an off-handed remark or an odd comment that takes on meaning as the story develops.
Tony is the hero who is not a hero so much as a survivor. Looking back on his Prufrockian life, he decides that he has never actually lived. Nor has he understood his past—starting with his relationship with his boyhood friend, Adrian Finn, and his college girlfriend, the manipulative Veronica Ford. Veronica alternately seduced and scorned Tony, a pattern he found—and still finds—both enticing and repellant.
The narrative follows characters who are elitist but not necessarily elite. Coming of age in the 1960s, they want to be different. They worry that they will grow up to be ordinary like their parents and that, as Tony puts it, “Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature.... The things Literature was all about [were]: love, sex, morality, friendship, happiness, suffering, betrayal, adultery, good and evil, heroes and villains, guilt and innocence...murder, suicide, death, God.” Adulthood was the opposite. It was spent lost in vague shadows. And that is where Tony finds himself as the story opens.
Retired and in his late 60s, Tony is shaking off the torpor of late middle age and returning to the weighty questions that marked his adolescence. He has received a mysterious bequest that involves his college sweetheart and a boyhood friend who committed suicide.
In the years since college, he has married, had a child, divorced on friendly terms and is settling into a bourgeois life of volunteer activities and lowered expectations. Tony feels that life has rushed by him and sees himself a passive observer of the past four decades.
As Tony pieces together dim memories of his days at a London boys’ prep school replete with debates about the meaning of life, so do we. Like Tony, we think we understand what happened, only to learn that reality is not always what it seems. As best as he can half-remember, he and his friends had disdained sports, school and middle-class values. They “grasped life—and truth, and morality, and art—far more clearly than our compromised elders,” as Tony put it. Adrian, who went to Cambridge while Tony and the others went to lesser regarded schools, was especially discerning.
Reflecting on his youthful idealism, Tony recalls the philosophical discussions that occurred in his classes—primarily his history and literature courses. He remembers discussions about subjective as opposed to objective interpretations of the past.
The boys discussed existentialism and the morality or immorality of suicide when a classmate killed himself after he had gotten a girl pregnant. Adrian—influenced by Camus—contended that suicide was the expression of one’s ultimate freedom. The others were not so sure and concluded that killing oneself was wrong. The irony became evident when Adrian later committed suicide in college after he took up with Tony’s former girlfriend, Veronica.
Tension builds when Tony receives an unexpected surprise in the form of a financial bequest from Mrs. Ford, Veronica’s mother. She has also left Tony Adrian’s diary as well as a letter Tony had written to Adrian in a fit of jealousy many years earlier. But Veronica has the diary and refuses to give it up.
Although not overtly religious, the narrative turns on the conflict between good and evil. The implied questions that drive the story are these: What happens if I curse my neighbor and that curse is fulfilled? Does the fact that I was young and foolish mitigate my guilt? Should it? As Tony puts it, “But the very action of naming something that subsequently happens—of wishing specific evil, and that evil coming to pass—this still has a shiver of the otherworldly about it.”
What actually happens in The Sense of an Ending does not matter so much as how the characters perceive what happens. One thing our hero ultimately learns is that a quick and barely remembered action has the power to permanently mar many lives.