The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes: Book Review

Title: The Sense of an Ending

Author: Julian Barnes

Genre: Fiction

The 2011 Man Booker Prize winner Julian Barnes’ novel ‘The Sense of an Ending’ deals with time and how unreliable and inaccurate memories can be.

This compact novel reads sometimes like a memoir and sometimes like an essay. I traveled through the pages, wondering, hoping to unravel a mystery, a mystery which has its roots in the human mind and its inexplicable manifestation.

Review

After a dissertation on how time distorts even history and how the mind and our perceptions can rewrite even our memories and our experiences, the bizzare characters and their circumstances are made clear through a sensational incident that happened in the past. But the end does not matter or the approximation of what really happened because the strength of the book lies in the shifting of the past, the memories and the nature of regret.

Quite tellingly, the book opens with a small list of memories and that sets the tone of the story narrated. But, the reader does not know what actually happens. The reader can only go by the narrator, his views , perceptions and interpretations. Not only the future but even the past is uncertain.

The book is very readable and subtle, yet it brings up questions and insights that the reader will grapple with long after the book has been read.

What works well

Since the book deals with a handful of characters and the protagonist, Tony Webster, interprets their lives, actions, motives through his own understanding of human behaviour, the reader gets a glimpse of how strongly perceptions influence our actions.

Tony talks of his school years, then his life through marriage, parenthood, divorce and retirement. The reader gets a sense of having a sweeping view of a person’s life and his very private desires and opinions. He talks extensively of what changes ageing brings and how memories are mutable.

I was not disappointed, not completely but the mystery and it’s resolution takes some getting used to. I had to go back and re read some of the parts and the pieces fell into place very neatly.

The title of the book is borrowed from a book of the same name written by Frank Kermode, published in 1967. The stated aim of this book was “making sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives”. This, then sums up the book by Julian Barnes beautifully.

Verdict

Subtle, surprising, shocking. This is a masterpiece on the workings of the mind and the unreliability of memories.

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