“…our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but-mainly-to ourselves-” Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending.
So says the protagonist, Tony Webster,of the Man Booker Prize winning novel, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. In a nutshell, the novel is precisely just that-A man in his 60s looking back, retelling and re-examining his life’s story and certain events in them. However, it isn’t a Charles Dickenish kind of a novel where Copperfield will look at each and every event of his life and bore us to death. The story of his life that Tony tells us and perhaps to himself too is quite a succinct, precise one with frequent ramblings on the importance and unreliability of memory and passing of time and life in general. And that is how Barnes’ prose also works: clean and full of precision-a kind of no nonsense, no frills, not too overtly nostalgic look at one’s life.
The novel is divided into two parts. The first part is a quick look at the Tony’s life in school with his group of friends and how they meet the intellectual and seemingly serious Adrian Finn. He talks of his college life, his girlfriend Veronica and how things get complicated in that relationship. With a witty and engaging narration, Tony gives in a good, tongue-in-cheek manner all that there is to school and teenage life-friends, love, college, partying, being together and promising a sincere lifelong contact and a kind of innocent idealism about everything. But this not in a cliched style that will make you retch and cringe with the nostalgia usually associated with those times but will make you say, “yes even I had those very same thoughts when I was a kid.” In the second part, Tony looks at back at some of those events and when unexpectedly a will bequeaths Adrian’s diary to him, he is forced to look at his break up with Veronica and his relationship with Adrian in a fresh light and come to turns with what had happened then despite his memory’s unwillingness to do so. This quest turns the story into a quasi-suspense novel without letting go of its quasi-philosophical ramblings about re looking at life.
The narration is very conversational and Tony tells his story as if he were orally narrating it to some listeners which is exactly what makes the text engaging. The reader is constantly acknowledged and addresses to and thus we feel drawn into the story and relate to it easily-who doesn’t nostalgically look back at their good times in life, who doesn’t invent memories, who doesn’t read into the past and reasons it out-aren’t we all guilty of that, of pruning the bad parts and remembering only the good aspects, of inventing our life’s story for ourselves? There is therefore a kind of universalism in his pondering about life but without making it stereotypical and without imposing it on the reader.
With many quotable quotes and witty phrases and one liners that may or may not hit you with a profound realisation, The Sense of an Ending is a brisk, powerful and moving tale of the uncertainties of life. The end is completely surprising and revelation of a bitter truth does somehow communicate ‘the sense of an ending’ in a way. Cannot reveal more, would be quite a spoiler and would simply ruin the fun of finding out on your own. All I can say is highly recommended. But do not read it just because it won some fancy prize but because it can say a lot about the vagaries of life-more than those silly philosophical books anyhow and more importantly read it because well what could be more joyful than picking up a book and immersing yourself in it and falling in love with another author’s works?