Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

This Booker-prize winner is a slim thing. It reflects the history, the thoughts, and the imaginings of a perfectly ordinary man who passes quickly in these pages from a rather cliquish schoolboy, Tony, with three main male friends and a girl-antagonist (to distinguish her from girl-friend), to a conservative, cautious, and very possibly boring adult. How nice he is able to survive his own life, for after all “history is written by survivors”:
”The less time there remains in your life, the less you want to waste it. That’s logical, isn’t it? Though how you use the saved-up hours…well, that’s another thing I wouldn’t have predicted in youth. For instance, I spend a lot of time clearing things up—and I’m not even a messy person. But it’s one of the modest satisfactions of age. I aim for tidiness; I recycle; I clean and decorate my flat to keep up its value; I’ve made my will; and my dealings with my daughter, son-in-law, grandchildren and ex-wife are, if less than perfect, at least settled. Or so I’ve persuaded myself. I’ve achieved a state of peaceableness, even peacefulness. Because I get on with things. I don’t like mess, and I don’t like leaving a mess. I’ve opted for cremation, if you want to know.”

Our man Tony is satisfied with his life and how he’s managed it. More importantly, he is infuriatingly male, illustrating that insulated and even sometimes insular male mind (they can’t help it, can they?) that is one big reason women divorce them after years of marriage.

But how beautifully Barnes does it! We giggle with his halting revelations from schoolboy to adult and into middle age. There is a mystery here that centers around that girl-antagonist, Veronica. Reviews I have read speak of some shocking outcome at the end of this book…not so for me. Do I show my age or my wisdom or merely my sex when I say I was not fooled for a moment but had guessed all from the start? Of course Barnes knew this—he gave us enough clues. But he does something here which is really illustrative: he shows us the divide between those who live their lives with keen awareness and those who don’t. And I don’t just mean the difference between Adrian and Tony, though the same is true there as well.

I am grateful to Barnes for his last three paragraphs in which he tells us Tony finally “gets it.” It almost seems sad that he feels uneasy and responsible now: “what else have I done wrong?” But there must be some satisfaction for poor old Tony in finally catching up with the central mystery of life.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores


  1. This book was one of my favorites a couple years ago and I hope to reread it soon. Barnes certainly has a way with words... have added a few of his other books to my wish list, too.

    1. JoAnn, Barnes was once again shortlisted for his latest novel, Levels of Life, though it is not straight fiction and it is about grief. Did you know he writes funny crime-capers under his pen name Dan Kavanagh? Duffy features a bi-sexual ex-policeman in seedy Soho. I am just beginning to have a look at them now.

    2. I had no idea! Will need to look around for Dan Kavanaugh - thanks.