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The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes won the Man Booker Prize in 2011. Despite being a fan of literary fiction I had never heard of the book nor read anything by Julian Barnes previously. I was at the airport early last Saturday morning facing 4 flights and over 30 hours of travel and realised to my dismay that I hadn’t brought a hard copy book with me. I’d been so intent on making travel preparations that I forgot that during takeoff and landing electronic devices can’t be used, not even e-readers. My first flight was delayed by 90 minutes which allowed me ample time to browse for a good quality yet slim paperback book to enjoy. There were plenty of tomes of interest but slim volumes were less common making The Sense of an Ending the obvious choice.
I approached the book with pleasant expectation, wondering what the unique voice (generally a quality of Booker Prize winners) would be. I was then surprised to discover that the protagonist is a somewhat dim fellow who takes a while to grasp the obvious and relates too many trivial details. As can be expected in such a slim volume there aren’t beautiful descriptions. So with an uninspiring narrator and lack of gorgeous prose or five star words the onus falls to the story to be captivating. In this respect the book is successful and I found myself wanting to continue reading even after we had permission to activate electronic devices.
The character of Adrian brought to mind Henry in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, a teenager so precocious and intelligent that even teachers defer to him, a student of history and a philosophical thinker, from a difficult home life, romantically embroiled with the protagonist’s beau (Veronica), mysterious, occupies a position of power amongst the clique, protective of the protagonist for unknown reasons, and yet is ultimately unhappy and chooses an early end.
Similarly the unambitious, dull drifter of a protagonist (Tony) shares traits with Richard, the protagonist of The Secret History, and the love interest, Veronica is as mysterious as Camilla in The Secret History. I found Veronica to be impenetrable in terms of trying to understand her feelings and motivations.
The other writer that Barnes brought to mind is Tim Winton with his fascination with following mediocre boys into middle age and exploring at length the formative experiences of youth that led them to being socially isolated and reflective adults with failed relationships.
What I liked, apart from the plot, are the contemplations on history, i.e. what motivates recorders of history, how fallible is memory, and explorations of philosophy.
that’s one of the central problems of history… The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put to us.
On the question of responsibility and blame for World War One, Adrian makes this statement
we want to blame an individual so that everyone else is exculpated, or we blame a historical process as a way of exonerating individuals… There is a chain of individual responsibilities, all of which are necessary, but not so long a chain that everybody can simply blame everyone else.
Patrick Lagrange is quoted as saying:
History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.
The 4 boys while in school together were fascinated by the suicide of the student named Robson who took his own life after discovering that his girlfriend was pregnant. Tony is not particularly insightful into the possible motivations of Robson but we are treated to an in-depth analysis by Adrian. After leaving school Adrian follows the lead of Robson and we spend the second half of the book deep within Tony’s memories of those formative years in high school and university, struggling to understand why Adrian committed suicide. I suppose that the reason that Barnes made Tony so dull was so that he could slowly figure out what had happened between Adrian and Veronica to cause the suicide. The revelation on the 2nd last page goes part of the way to explaining the motivation to the suicide but I was still left with a sense of wonder about why he did it and how Tony could just waste his whole life without really living.