Or so goes the prevalent theme in Julian Barnes’s Booker Prize winning novel (2011), “The Sense of an Ending,” which seems to declare itself more a novella than a novel. Compact (166 pages in big font), subtle, and cheeky at times, Barnes’s piece is enjoyable enough, though it never bites off more than it can chew, preferring to play itself safe and keep its narrative in the careful poise of the author’s crosshairs.
In this way, the novel itself is reflective of the central character, Tony, who at a novel’s genesis, is at a ripe old age, looking back on his life and remembering (we are told), in no particular order: “a shiny inner wrist…steam rising from a wet sink…gouts of sperm circling a plughole…a river rushing nonsensically upstream…another river, broad and grey….bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door”.
To Barnes’s credit, it takes a lot out of an author to throw such random memories at his reader in the first page, only to connect the dots later and flush out, eventually, a sort of detective piece.
That being said, every detective piece needs a crime to instigate it. In “Sense of an Ending,” the crime is the tragic suicide of Adrian, a young, bright nipper with whom Tony, alongside two other friends, made a sort of intellectual circle, back in his halcyon (and, admittedly, pretentious) schoolboy days. Once the boys go off to university, they begin to fall out of touch and their lives get busier, more adult. Tony gets a girlfriend, Veronica, “about five foot two with rounded, muscular calves, mid-brown hair to her shoulders, blue-grey eyes behind blue-framed spectacles, and a quick yet withholding smile”, which seems to be a polite (and very British) way of saying, or withholding from saying, that she’s a standoffish prude. “I thought she was nice,” says Tony, with a tone of self-defense.
It could also be taken as a foreboding omen: I thought she was nice, for when Tony introduces Veronica to his chums, Adrian included, the rest of the book finds its grounding. The two break up; Tony, feeling jibbed though not exactly heartbroken, goes through several feeble steps to win her back, or, if not, at least get in a good punch or two: “I took a milk jug she’d given me down to the Oxfam shop. I hoped she’d see it in the window”. Only when he receives a letter from Adrian, “an increasingly rare occurrence”, asking for his permission to date Veronica, do the attempts stop. Tony sends the couple a letter of congratulations (condolences, in more ways than one, on Adrian’s part) that of course is just a rage-directed feck off memo, and he decides that they are out of his life forever.
Life goes on. Tony graduates from university and jumps the puddle to America for an extended vacation. Six months later he arrives and is promptly given the news that Adrian has committed suicide. This is more or less where the first quarter of the novel ends and is all meant to serve more as backdrop than story. For Barnes isn’t precisely concerned with the events of the story itself, but in the way that they’ve been shaped through time and altered by perspective. “How often do we tell our own life story?” Tony, aged mid sixties, divorced, and a father, addresses the reader, perhaps with a sense of cautionary curiosity: your life story at your own risk, because there might be some very unpleasant things you’re hesitant to admit to yourself; things with unreliability and untruthfulness that may cripple the integrity of the story.
I’ll keep this response brief and attempt to close things off here. For all its careful sequencing, its philosophic digressions on time and the gift of life (and whether or not to continue accepting it without reserve), and its beautifully drawn characters, “The Sense of an Ending” lacks animation, adventure, or daring. I recall the days of “England, England” (1998) and a scene of corporate tycoon Sir Jack Pitman, swaddled like a baby, blowing explosive farts into his adult diaper to appease his perverse sexual appetites. There’s daring, there’s flaw, but in those flaws there’s a hint of thrill and danger like from a young writer with moxy and not a care in the literary world. “The Sense of an Ending” reads with calmness, much like something by Ishiguro; it’s the undoubted work of a master and it walks with grace, though it never runs.