May It Never End

The Sense of Ending
Julian Barnes

One of the critics whose comments appear on the cover of last year’s Booker Prize winner, Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, tells readers that they not only must read this book, they must re-read it. And when you reach the end of this startling and unsettling book, you will quite definitely realise why. This is a book in which the reality of events can be so thoroughly far removed from the way we witness or understand them that we are shocked, repeatedly, to discover that we must grasp what is happening in increasingly alien ways. The first part of the novel is a broad first-person account of one man’s youth, as he remembers it when he is a much older man. In the second half, the focus narrows dramatically, and we follow a small sequence of events in this man’s old age. New truths about the events of many years before will come, gradually, to the surface. The effect is tension on the order of a very, very good thriller, and it carries a severe emotional punch.

In the first part, our narrator Tony and his school friends are joined by a new boy, Adrian Finn, whose serious and unironic attitude to life sets him apart from the pretentious intellectualism of the others. Adrian is very thoughtful and earnest – he gives answers in history class that read like one of the more cringeworthy moments in The History Boys. When the boys go their separate ways to university, they stay in touch, and when Tony has a steady girlfriend he takes her to meet Adrian and the others. Surprising developments ensue. In part two, these will turn out to have been even more surprising than we believe at the time.

The states of mind and the feelings of these insecure, emotional young men are captured very accurately, excepting a few moment when the depictions slide into caricature. (These are mostly in the high school years, when it feels as though Barnes is deliberately pulling back some of the subtlety of his characterisations in order to give a sense of immaturity, and weakening his creations as a result.) Especially well done is the unpacking of Tony’s relationship with his girlfriend. And all of this is framed within a consideration of the mercurial, mysterious natures of time and memory – hence the weight given to the history classes in high school. Barnes scatters the fifty pages or so of Tony’s youth with reminders on the subjectivity of this performance, the possible innaccuracy of what he shows, and the allowances we must make for his lack of understanding. “Again, I must stress that this is my reading now of what happened then. Or rather, my memory now of my reading then of what was happening at the time.” These allusions prepare us for the ways in which these themes will be addressed, much more closely, through the book’s real subject. That subject is only very gradually, and with the most thrilling skill, brought into the light.

Yet to say that The Sense of an Ending is about time and memory is to do it a disservice, to make it sound like the kind of laboured intellectual document that one is forced to study in an HSC English classroom. The Sense of an Ending is about human beings, and it is the better for it. More than this, its themes are subtler than the catch-all headings of “time” and “memory” might make you suppose. Like William Golding’s Sea Trilogy (the unsung final masterpiece from the man who wrote Lord of the Flies), this book is much more about the ways in which our actions have consequences far beyond what we may sometimes understand of them; about how tragically limited our perspective on the people around us can so often be; and about how shocking it is that there can be such stupendously, staggeringly wide gulfs between the way we conceive of ourselves and our actions, and the ways we and our actions are received and understood by others. All of which is a very wordy way of saying that this book will grip you and then it will shock you. Perhaps even devastate you. And that, after all, is what makes for a seriously good read.