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October 5, 2011 / Rachel Bednarski

Review: The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian BarnesRandom House Canada,150 pages, $25

This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature. Look at our parents – were they the stuff of Literature?

I had high expectations of The Sense of an Ending, as I’m sure anyone picking it up at the moment would what with it being the favourite to win the Booker Prize and all, and despite its brevity Barnes achieves a great deal his novella’s modest 150 pages.

The book is a sort of Ian McEwan and J.M. Coetzee hybrid in its capacious and intelligent explorations of life, death, youth, regret and the mutability of memory. Ah, yes, the imperfections of memory, a theme that has been done many a time by many an author, and Barnes does not offer a particularly unique perspective on the subject, except, possibly, that his narrative is approached through the framework of suicide. Yet his superlative prose more than compensates for the over-done subject matter.

The novel begins:

We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I’ve never felt I understood it very well. And I am not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist somewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand?

Much of the narrative is comprised of the protagonist, Tony Webster’s, first-person philosophical reflections on his youth and the suicide of his childhood friend Adrian from the vantage point of his distinctly pedestrian middle age. Half way through the book, the narrative  jumps suddenly from the hedonism of Tony’s school days to his perfunctory adulthood, which takes a more darkly profound tone when Adrian’s diary is left to Tony in a will. A great deal of Barnes’s premise is manifested in this temporal gap, in what is not related, as it perfectly evokes not only the ephemeral nature of time but its ability to evade us without us ever really having realised it has done so, thus perfectly demonstrating the novel’s main premise.

How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but – mainly – to ourselves.

I prefer character-based novels as opposed to plot-based novels, particularly if the plot feels as if it has been constructed merely for plot’s sake, as The Sense of an Ending unfortunately does.  Following the absorbing account of the ‘book-hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, anarchistic‘ youthful Tony and his friends Colin, Alex and Adrian at the time when they are waiting for their lives to begin, the novel’s second half escalates into a futile hunt by Tony for a diary left to him in a will and ends with an unnecessary plot twist that detracts from and devalues the superbly written characters and intensity of ideas at the novels beginning. This twist, however, is explained upon learning that Barnes took the novel’s title from Frank Kermode’s 1965 book of the same name, which explores the literary concept of peripeteia, or an sudden twist in plot, which is employed by writers in order to force the reader to alter their expectations.
I admit I was disappointed that the use of this device meant that the thread the narrative had taken thus far meant that Tony’s assumed theory for Adrian’s suicide, that he was nobly renouncing the un-asked-for gift of life – ‘Do you think it was because he was too clever?’ Tony’s mum asks – is repudiated when it is revealed he ended his life out of shame and cowardice. I was really quite interested in the concept of suicide as a bold and rational act and think Barnes could have gone further with Adrian’s intelligence to produce a truly insightful and provocative work. Indeed, the book is narrative theory and I think that is where its poignancy lies, and despite Barnes’s intentions regarding peripeteia, it would work with or without the plot twist.

I must say, I am a lauder of concise novella of the likes of Coetzee, Coupland, Coelho et al; works where every word counts and every page holds your attention and Barnes’s contribution is a testament to the value of shorter narratives. The Sense of an Ending is an irrefutably important work and one which is certainly worthy of its place in the Booker shortlist, this may just be Barnes’s year. I will leave you with my favourite quote from the book:

I remember a period in late adolescence when my mind would make itself drunk with images of adventurousness. This is how it will be when I grow up. I shall go there, do this, discover that, love her, and then her and then her. I shall live as people in novels live. Which ones I was not sure, only that passion and danger, ecstasy and despair (but then more ecstasy) would be in attendance. However…who said that thing about ‘the littleness of life that art exaggerates?



Leave a Comment
  1. blookblog / Oct 5 2011 8:13 pm

    Too true Sandy!

  2. SandySays1 / Oct 5 2011 7:18 pm

    Quality not quantity!


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