The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes – review
The mutability of memory lies at the heart of Julian Barnes's brilliantly concise novel
Sunday 31 July 2011 00.04 BST
The Sense of an Ending is a short novel, but one that packs in a lot. Full of insight and intelligence, it is in some ways a more intellectual version of Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, touching on the same themes of youthful sex, inhibition, class, regret and false recollection. It is the story of a retired sixtysomething man, Tony Webster, a relatively dull and "peaceable" character, once in arts administration, who seems, while broadly accepting his own decline, to be trying to impose a pattern on his past. Barnes has taken his title from Frank Kermode, who in his 1965 book, The Sense of an Ending, explored the way in which writers use "peripeteia" – the unexpected twist in the plot – to force readers to adjust their expectations. Barnes has visited the subject of death two or three times recently, most directly in his 2008 nonfiction work, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, and he is fascinated by how people deal with death, and the changed circumstances it can bring to the surviving partner. So we rightly come to suspect that this novel is setting the reader up for peripeteia.
As the book opens, Tony is spending a good deal of his time thinking about his relationship with his schoolfriend Adrian Finn, who committed suicide as a young man. Tony is Pooterishly content with his life and mediocrity (exemplified by his 2:1 from Bristol), which he contrasts with Finn's burning and forensic intelligence. Even as a schoolboy, Finn demonstrated a precocious understanding of philosophy and history. He said that "he hates the way the English have of not being serious about being serious" – words quoted twice in the novel. This is a Barnesian theme too, lying behind much of his work, fiction and nonfiction, even when it is at its most playful.
Tony attended school in the 1960s, and many of his memories centre on him and his friends grappling with the new sexual freedoms. Not that these always arrived in their neck of the woods quite in time: one of their schoolmates killed himself after getting a girl pregnant. At the end of their school careers, Adrian Finn goes to Cambridge and Tony to Bristol, where he meets Veronica Ford. Veronica invites him to stay for a few days with her family in Chislehurst, and he feels himself to have been humiliated by her disdainful father and supercilious brother, both of whom are intimidatingly posh. But Veronica's mother, Sarah, takes to him, and even appears to offer him a mysterious warning about her daughter.
Back in Bristol, the relationship between Veronica and Tony is full of awkward skirmishing around "full sex" and the meaning of love. After a year or two and a single, unappealing sexual experience, they split up; Veronica is very bitter. Finn later writes to Tony to say that he is going out with Veronica, and hopes that his friend doesn't mind. He does. Finn and Veronica marry, and eventually, Tony learns, Finn slits his wrists in a bath. The circumstances are unclear but Tony is sure they must have some sort of logic to them.
As he pores over his relationship with Veronica it becomes clear that this is a novel largely concerned with how, in the course of a life, we edit and erase our memories. Tony, we begin to suspect, is very prone to self-redaction. Now, in the present, he suddenly receives a letter from a solicitor dealing with the estate of Sarah Ford, Veronica's mother, saying that she has left him £500 and a diary kept by Adrian Finn. He is puzzled, and tries to get in touch with Veronica. She claims to have burnt the diary after her mother's death. Very quickly, vertiginously, the whole story becomes much darker and ultimately shocking, as Tony finally understands – as do we – what Veronica meant when she said repeatedly: "You just don't get it, do you?"
Deservedly longlisted for the Man Booker prize, this is a very fine book, skilfully plotted, boldly conceived, full of bleak insight into the questions of ageing and memory, and producing a very real kick – or peripeteia – at its end. As Kermode wrote: "At some very low level we all share certain fictions about time, and they testify to the continuity of what is called human nature…" Barnes has achieved, in this shortish account of a not very attractive man, something of universal importance.