21 September 2011

Review 40: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (Man Booker Shortlist)

The Sense of an Ending is the first novel from the Man Booker shortlist that I've read and I was drawn to it primarily because of its beautiful cover, so it definitely wins points for having the best cover design on the shortlist. Barnes is the bookies favourite to win and when the shortlist was announced the judging panel claimed it as Barnes' best work, which considering he has already been shortlisted several times does seem to bode well for his chances. I will get back to you once I've read the others...

The Sense of an Ending is the story of Tony Webster as he looks back on his life and is a contemplative look at memory, life and death. He recounts his schooldays and his frienship with Adrian and his first relationship with the complicated Veronica.

The theme of the way people approach death is a known as a common one for Barnes and this novel sees it through Tonys eyes. Tony is a fairly average man, he went to school then university, got married, had a daughter and got divorced. His whole life has been fairly normal and without drama; even his divorce was amicable and Tony and his wife still occasionally meet up for lunch. As Tony approaches old age he reflects back on what might be perceived as mediocre. He starts by recalling his school days and his friendship with Adrian, the intellectual and aloof new boy and leads on to his first relationship with Veronica whilst at university.

In the present day Tony is left Adrian's diary and has to go through Veronica to get it which sets him off on a type of quest to read his old friends diary. The how and why of this happens would give away some fairly key plot elements. The book isn't heavily plot driven but it's always good to know minimal plot details, I feel, so you can enjoy events as they happen. I hate it when reviews give away too much story as on the whole I only want to know the gist of the story to get a feel of what its about and what I actually want to know is what the reviewer thinks of it.
I had a funny experience with this book. It's not what you'd called unputdownable as isn't exactly exciting and is certainly not fast paced however when I wasn't reading it I kept thinking about it and wanting to pick it up more to do with Barnes writing than the story. I wasn't particularly fussed about what was going to happen but more just wanting to read how Barnes did it which no doubt speaks very highly for Barnes' writing.

I've not read anything by Barnes before although Arthur and George is on my pile, and has been moved up my list after reading this, therefore I can't really comment on the judging committee's comments that this is his best work but it's certainly a wonderful book. My only criticism is the ending. It was almost too eventful and seemed a bit too sensationalist for the tone of the rest of the book. I also had to reread one paragraph a few times to make sure I understood what he was saying. I feel like if you're going to introduce a twist it needs to be clearer what you're doing. I had to check he was saying what  thought he was. Having said that, the ramifications of the 'twist' did cast an interesting light on the rest of the novel and it would be interesting to reread knowing the ending.

All in all, an excellent novel which manages to really  get inside your head. I would be happy for it to win a literary prize but I haven't read the rest of the Man Booker shortlist to compare it to yet.


  1. I had thoughts of The Sea, the sea when I was reading this. (Which I never felt invested in enough to read the ending.) I liked the writing, but was disappointed in the ending and it spoiled it a bit for me. I didn't feel Veronica's expectation of Tony was understandable even after the reveal. Or why he appeared in the will in the first place, which was the crux of the story. The philosophy in this one was more enjoyable for me than the mystery, though I really wanted to find out what was in the book.

  2. I really agree with you Karyn - Veronica's frustration with Tony when he couldn't work out what was going on was annoying. I felt like Barnes wanted us to be frustrated with Tony for not seeing what was going on but I couldn't work it out either. The first 3/4 of the book was far better than the final quarter in my opinion. I wanted more questions answered in the end including why he was in the will and what exactly was going on with Veronica's mother.

  3. The story's facade is simple, refined almost to monotony and dependent on the revelation of a secret towards the ending. But what is hidden between the lines is far more chaotic—and likely to leave the reader anxious for days after finishing the book. I loved that the book made me really think about regret, and repentance. It also made me think about the idea that we are always dishonest narrators of our own lives. And the book was very disturbing that it made me think about how easy it is to think you are one kind of person, when you are actually not and how universal human frailty is.
    The ending was excellent that it left me lost in the lines, sitting there, recollecting all the little pieces of story back together in my mind. And it left me chaotic and disturbed for days after finishing the book.