Man Booker Prize, Fiction, 2011
Tony Webster and his clique first met Adrian Finn at school. Sex-hungry and book-hungry, they would navigate the girl-less sixth form together, trading in affectations, in-jokes, rumor, and wit. Maybe Adrian was a little more serious than the others, certainly more intelligent, but they all swore to stay friends for life. Now Tony is retired. He’s had a career and a single marriage, a calm divorce. He’s certainly never tried to hurt anybody. Memory, though, is imperfect. It can always throw up surprises, as a lawyer’s letter is about to prove. The Sense of an Ending is the story of one man coming to terms with the mutable past. Laced with trademark precision, dexterity and insight, it is the work of one of the world’s most distinguished writers.
©2011 AudioGO (P)2011 Julian Barnes
“Elegant, playful, and remarkable.” (The New Yorker)
“A page turner, and when you finish you will return immediately to the beginning . . . Who are you? How can you be sure? What if you’re not who you think you are? What if you never were? . . . At 163 pages, The Sense of an Ending is the longest book I have ever read, so prepare yourself for rereading. You won’t regret it.” (The San Francisco Chronicle)
“Dense with philosophical ideas . . . it manages to create genuine suspense as a sort of psychological detective story . . . Unpeeling the onion layers of the hero’s life while showing how [he] has sliced and diced his past in order to create a self he can live with. (Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times)
Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.
I quite enjoyed this exquisitely crafted short novel, which reflects on the way we reshape our memories, creating a self-justifying narrative that might lead us away from the complete truth. On page, the protagonist, a retirement-aged man named Tony who's led an unremarkable, solidly upper-middle-class British life, recounts what sounds at first like idle reminiscences of his schoolboy and university days in the 1960s. We learn of a brilliant schoolmate and friend named Adrian, a former girlfriend named Veronica, and the falling out that drove them out of each other's lives and towards different fates.
However, an enigmatic letter in the present day brings the half-forgotten past back to life, forcing Tony to come to new terms with what happened and why. As the story progresses, it becomes evident that we're hearing more than just a casual recall of long-ago events, and that Tony might not be the reliable narrator he wants to believe he is. Or connected to events in the minds of others the way he wants to be.
Like Jonathan Franzen's last novel (and what I remember of Flannery O'Connor's short stories), this is the sort of literature that relies on discomfiting the reader, first testing our sympathies for the characters, then making them cross some ill-defined frontier of reasonable behavior where we ourselves would probably not go. The implicit question, naturally, is: how far would we go? And when would our self-deceptions become apparent to us? This kind of literary screw-turning doesn't work for every reader, of course, but given the book's short length, I think it's bearable.
Both the writing and plotting are marvelous, the story winding delicately around a hidden truth that's not fully revealed until the last page. Each unwinding puts previous information in the story in a new light, until even the seemingly throwaway exchanges between smarmy British prep students and pedantic schoolmasters raise questions about how a mind might plant its own evidence in the past while searching for clues about it. Or, as one character puts it, how “history is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
All in all, a complex, self-enfolding work of fiction, showing that the acts of rearranging the future and rearranging the past are never disconnected, and even a path towards reconciliation and sincerity can hold its own subtle self-delusions. Like other brilliant examples of the craft, it feels satisfactorily ended but leaves me with questions that continue to swirl in my mind.
A part-time buffoon and ersatz scholar specializing in BS, pedantry, schmaltz and cultural coprophagia.
"Time...give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical."
There are novels that disturb, provoke, upset, invigorate and submerge the reader -- all at the same time. Barnes is a master of language; not a comma or ellipsis is wasted in this tight, beautiful novel. For such a compact piece it seems to drift without waste, to pause and breathe without slowing. It is both an examination of memory, time, nostalgia, history, and the meaning of life ... AND a beautiful portrait of a man probing the mysteries and responsibilities of his own life. 'The Sense of an Ending' is one of those novels where once you've read twenty pages, you can't put it down or rest until it is finished.
Business Physicist and Astronomer
In business, I often remind managers that they really do not know where people are coming from or what is happening at a given moment in a given life. Is he waiting for test results from the doctor? Lost a relative? Facing bankruptcy?
Well, this book is a stinging look-back at what we miss.
I have some early chapters in my own life that cause me to squirm upon review.
This book hits this subject so beautifully I lack the words.
Now here's the caveat. If you are under 30 or maybe even 40, you may not really understand this book. Not yet anyway. So don't judge too harshly until you've gone a few miles...
Recommend this book?
To whom? Everyone though the younger one is, the less it might be understood.
Chris Reich, TeachU
This is a very well written book, and there were times I wanted to savor the words by rereading them. Depends on how you are playing the audible book, but my device does not make it easy to go back just a little. So, my recommendation to a friend would be to read it but do so in print. That said, it is a worthwhile listen, and one of those books that you want to discuss afterwards with someone else who has read it.
Perspective on a Life.
The reader really helps this story. He conveys both the youth and maturity needed for the central characters and the rest of the characters are nicely differentiated and balanced.
It's a wonderful ending, and it will string you along the whole way. Once you have finished the book, I highly recommend listing to the first 20 minutes again so the jigsaw you are presented in the beginning can all fall into place. It's an elaborate metaphor for memory, and it works.
There is a letter read many years later from the central character. This letter shapes the rest of the book. It's a shock and quite incredible.
From the book: "It is a statement with an eye to the future that is often the most suspect." "History is the lives of the victors, and the self-delusions of the defeated." or "History is that certainty when the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation."
A great listen.
This book is about all the ambiguities of life, of memory, of meaning in life. It is the kind of book that many say they need to read (listen to) twice. I did go back and listen to the beginning and will probably buy the print copy.
That said, it is worth it to buy the audio version because the reader, who was an award-winning actor, gives it something extra.
The first half of the story recounts various events from the narrator's life. In the second half, a former girlfriend and a document from his earlier life reappear. The former GF and he also share new events. The narrator then needs to reassess the meaning (or even veracity) of events as he remembered them against the new perspectives of an older person with evidence that these events did not really occur in the way he remembered.
This reminds me of Kundera and of Remains of the Day. If you liked those, you will probably like this. Otherwise, consider carefully. This book is not for everyone. If you prefer a strongly plotted novel, this may not be your cup of tea (or coffee for Americans).
The sad thing is to learn that the narrator has died.
Fascinating, complex, compelling
When Tony's wife told him he was on his own now..... profound - for him
Margaret - actually, the only character I can say I liked!
The end, when Tony realized his mistakes, regrets, that he'd never change, but that he was alright with it all. Resigned to his life and content.
This was a book group read - our first of the season. For such a relatively short book, it sure had a lot going on. Our book group members are (almost) all in our 60's and could relate to Tony's musings at the end of the story, as well as being young women in the beginning days of the sexual revolution. There was lots to discuss and several differing opinions, but to a person, we all liked the book very much.
The gentle, sad voice of the narrator added to the lovely prose. I did not like every moment of the story, mostly because it is such a stark view of getting older and having regrets--I am at an age where I felt some empathy. With that in mind, probably not a book for a young person; or, at least, if you are young and you have explored this book, be sure you revisit it in twenty or thirty years.
What of the most delightful experiences, listening to this sad, sweet and smart story of one man look back on his life. Melancholy and marvelous.
Actor/Writer in ATX "The Most Wonderfully Ridiculous Person" -Kristen Kurtis 93.3 KGSR
This was a surprise favorite of mine. Upon finishing it I immediately bought a hard copy to give to a friend (and so I could scan through to reread some of my favorite moments).
This reminded me favorably of If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor, another of my favorite books in this modern, slightly poetic, sometimes vaguely aloof style.
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