394 of 422 people found the following review helpful
on November 1, 2011
I see that The Sense of an Ending has polarized opinion here and there. Personally I found it an almost - but not quite - immaculate piece of short fiction. And far, far superior to the other four Booker-shortlisted titles I've read. Barnes's novella is to my mind a minor classic.
The evidence of Barnes's mastery is there right from the title. I remember being struck, when reading one of Barnes's earlier novels, Talking It Over, by the way in which the title gradually took on a meaning radically different from what might have been anticipated: it might be supposed that people talk things over in order to make sense of them, to reach a more accurate understanding of them. However, it became clear that the alternating narrators of Talking It Over found themselves, whether or not deliberately, complicating the meaning of events and experiences by narrating them: talking things over became strangely similar to covering things over, or papering over awkward cracks.
Similarly, The Sense of an Ending is a title which begins to swim before the reader's eyes. The narrator, Tony, this time well into middle age, is, again, thinking things over. This time there is at least a double ambiguity: the "ending" can be taken to be death itself, or, more vaguely, the way various things turn out. And the sense of an ending is both the premonition of death, and of the fact that life is less and less likely to change radically towards its end, as one gets older - and also the need to make sense, retrospectively, of past events, including the death of Adrian, an old schoolfriend of the narrator's.
The most important event in the novel ostensibly appears to be the fact that Adrian started going out with Tony's ex-girlfriend, Veronica, during their final year at different universities and, encouraged by Veronica, sought Tony's benediction of the relationship. The reply sent by Tony is dealt with fairly obliquely in the first part of the novella ("As far as I remember, I told him pretty much what I thought of their joint moral scruples.") But then a photocopy of the letter falls into his hands over forty years later, and this time is given reproduced in full. It is one of the most devastatingly cruel letters imaginable: sour grapes at their most unpleasantly acidic.
And it seems that most of the narrator's later disillusionment and remorse revolves around that incident. Except that he is, towards the end, forced to start making sense of something which he had never suspected...
The conclusion has been felt by many to be unsatisfactory and implausible. I can imagine Julian Barnes receiving numerous letters asking him whether we are supposed to understand that Adrian in fact... And I can imagine the smile on his face as he reads them (and perhaps answers them...) But of course Barnes is not going to give any answers - any more than he chose to complete the sentence "So, for instance, if Tony" at the end of the isolated page from Adrian's diary.
Much speculation has appeared on the Booker site. Did Adrian...? Did Tony...? But when the penultimate section of the novel - the one where the narrator finally says "I got it" - is read carefully, I think the reader gets it too. In other words:
Veronica's mother Sarah ("making a secret horizontal gesture") tried to seduce Tony, her daughter's boyfriend. The broken eggs in the frying pan seem to symbolize a certain lackadaisical waywardness on her part. And she later succeeded in seducing her daughter's next boyfriend, Adrian, and thereafter giving birth to a handicapped child.
The clues, when the reader looks back carefully, are there, notably when the schoolboys speculate about Adrian's separated parents and one of them (we never learn which one, and it doesn't matter) says "Maybe your mum has a young lover?" Of course, this is a reference to Adrian's mother, not Mrs Ford; nevertheless, the possiblity of toyboy lovers is clearly posited.
We also learn that Mrs Ford, widowed, as far as we can determine, around the age of fifty, moved to London and "took in lodgers, even though she'd been left well provided for." Possibly to keep her emotional and sexual options open in seventies London...
******END OF SPOILER ALERT******
But, in the end, surely the point is that we can never be absolutely and totally sure about anything...
I said earlier that I found the novel "not quite" immaculate, and that's because of the
hair-raising trips in Veronica's car towards the end. It's a slightly heavy-handed way of indicating that Veronica is in fact more damaged than Tony realised.
******END OF SPOILER ALERT******
And another couple of minor quibbles:
* Tony's letter, written in the late sixties, refers to Veronica as "a control freak". Was that phrase around then? Isn't it an anachronism?
* The metaphorical "ice flow" on page 132 [UK edition] should be an "ice floe".
But, all in all, The Sense of an Ending is a deeply moral novel about the need to make sense of one's actions, and the need to face up to the consequences of actions which may have seemed inconsequential, or inexplicable, initially. Time, the novel makes clear, catches up on people. Irresponsible actions come home to roost. Similar points were made, with similar elegance and mastery, in John Banville's The Sea.
The whole things clocks in, allowing for the blank pages, at only 145 pages. But I reckon it a far superior work to the longer novels which were shortlisted - just as Banville's The Sea was far superior to Ishiguro's vastly overrated Never Let Me Go six years ago.
635 of 697 people found the following review helpful
At 176 pages, The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes Man Booker-nominated latest is barely even a novella. Yet, there's something to be said for an author willing to tell a story in the time that is needed to tell it, and not feeling compelled to pad the narrative. Mr. Barnes has included exactly what's needed within these pages and not a word more.
His tale is told in two parts, by everyman narrator Tony Webster. The first part, comprising approximately a third of the book, reads like a coming-of-age story. It recounts the formative relationships of Tony's early life, both male and female, from his school days through early adulthood. We meet his closest friends, witness his earliest romances, and experience his first losses. This first section was good, but not great on its own.
The novella flowered in its second, longer part, set 40 years later. Now Tony is in his early 60's, amicably divorced, and a generally content man. One day, he receives notification of an unexpected and frankly bewildering bequest--which is then even more bewilderingly withheld. These contemporary happenings open windows to events of the past and Mr. Barnes held me rapt with the tale.
Despite the compelling plotline, go into this novella expecting it to be character-driven rather than plot-driven. In the end, the inheritance is a MacGuffin, and not really that important after all. It's the relationships of the characters that really tell this tale, and they are beautifully rendered.
Throughout the latter part of the story, Tony is told repeatedly (and without explanation, of course), "You just don't understand!" Well, he thought he did, and I thought he did. But it isn't until the very final lines of the novella that the full truth is made clear. The Sense of an Ending is brief, and it is masterful, and if it wins the Man Booker Prize in a few minutes, it will be entirely deserving.
562 of 633 people found the following review helpful
on October 21, 2011
Julian Barnes is a good writer, and it's not hard to forgive him for the fact that he has either overestimated the detecting abilities of his readers, or he has not made his case thoroughly even if he intends to be a bit mystifying.
Can anyone answer these questions? I would be so grateful!
(DO NOT READ THE FOLLOWING IF YOU HAVE NOT READ THE BOOK!)
1) By the end of the novel we know that Adrian, in fact, is the father of Veronica's brother, who is mentally disabled in some way, and that his fatherhood may have had something to do with his suicide, or maybe nothing at all to do with it.
2) We know that Veronica's mother betrayed her own daughter, first to Tony, when she advised him not to let Veronica get away with too much, and then presumably with Adrian with whom she conceived a child.
3) We know that Tony believes that Veronica may have been abused by her father or brother as a child, but are we meant to think that, in fact, Veronica has been abused by her mother instead? Are we to believe that Veronica has systematically furnished her mother with young men over the years? Otherwise, why do Veronica and her brother and father go on an early-morning pre-breakfast walk the Saturday morning that Tony is at their house, leaving Tony and Veronica's mother alone? Is the whole family in on it? Does Veronica's mother want to have a child? Nothing untoward happens between them, except that Tony might have seemed rude or discouraging to her purposes when he cuts off a line of questioning about the nature of his and Veronica's relationship.
4) WHY does Veronica's mother leave 500 pounds to Tony? What does it mean when Veronica tells him that it's "blood money."
5) And, really? Everyone thought this was a brilliant book even though it made very little sense? It didn't pan out as a study of the elusive quality of memory; nor did it seriously address the question of what constitutes history--it didn't even broach those questions or conditions very broadly.
I thought the novel was interesting, but either it failed at it's purpose through over-subtlety, or I am simply not clever enough to unravel its meaning. Certainly the latter is possible, but it's not interesting enough on its own without a conclusion.
237 of 266 people found the following review helpful
on August 23, 2011
The Sense of an Ending is the 2011 Man Booker winner by Julian Barnes. A few months ago, I read Barnes' recent short story collection, Pulse. This novel was far superior to Pulse and worthy of the 2011 Booker. Having been shortlisted for the Booker three previous times (Flaubert's Parrot (1984), England, England (1998) and Arthur and George (2005)), Barnes finally won.
A summary of the plot is almost besides the point. This is a book about memory and getting old. The narrator, Tony Webster, is an ordinary guy, who shares his recollection of how his group of three friends becomes a group of four when a new, highly intellectual kid, Adrian, joins their school. Tony also shares details of his youthful relationship with Veronica. Tony meets Veronica's family and develops a warm relationship with her mother. After the inevitable breakup, Veronica and Adrian date. Years later and long after Veronica and Adrian are through, Veronica and the memory of Adrian reenter Tony's life.
Throughout the novella, Barnes beautifully creates the ephemeral feel of memory on the page. The book is well written and exhibits Barnes' talent for dialogue and creating a compelling story around an ordinary and otherwise uninteresting character. Unlike some of the stories in Pulse, Barnes does not write this with great flourish because it would be inconsistent with the ordinary nature of his main character.
If you liked Tinkers (Paul Harding's gorgeous surprise 2010 Pulitzer winner), this should appeal to you.
53 of 58 people found the following review helpful
It would be interesting if reviewers received books in the mail covered in brown wrapping paper so that the author's name was not visible -- a kind of blind tasting. In the case of this novel, one wouldn't know that it was written by the distinguished British author Julian Barnes, a highly acclaimed and much honored practitioner who has even, as one reads on the dust jacket, been named a Commander de l'IOrdre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture.
Would the reviews be different? Instead of everyone rushing to hail "this condensed, concentrated meditation on the meaning of responsibility, this devastating critique into a life half-lived, this penetrating analysis on the nature of mediocrity, this dazzling deconstruction of the unreliability of memory" etc etc -- would some now be saying, like the protagonist of this book, "I just don't get it."
We meet the perfectly ordinary Tony Webster as a first-year college student embarked on his first real love affair with the brainy and superior Veronica Ford. We also meet Tony's three best friends, including the incredibly intelligent Adrian.
The depiction of life for university students in the late sixties and early seventies and the efforts of a slightly shy, somewhat scared young man to learn the secrets of sex perfectly match my own memories of the era.
Tony and Veronica don't get very far with the sex and eventually get tired of each other and break up, not before Tony has suffered through an embarrassing weekend with Veronica's family. Some time later, Adrian writes to Tony saying he would like to "go out," as we used to say in those days, with Veronica. Tony is hurt and upset and replies. We don't get to read his letter until much later.
Some time after that, Adrian commits suicide.
The second half of the book jumps us forward to Tony, now plump and bald, divorced and in his sixties. Out of the blue, he receives a letter in the mail that leads him to reestablish contact with Veronica and in turn to question everything he had assumed about his own life and his qualities as a person. The end of this slim book arrives with a series of surprises like after-shocks following an earthquake.
It's not that I did not enjoy this book. I did enjoy it. I just feel it's trying to do too much. I don't think it said anything profound about life in general or Tony's perfectly normal, if not extraordinary life in particular. It seemed to be sending coded messages about the nature of responsibility, of the consequences of actions taken years ago, about the way life can, in rare cases, fold back on itself. But I couldn't fully decode the messages.
Perhaps this is because the author, like Adrian, is super bright, and this particular reader, like Tony, is rather average. If so, the reviewer begs pardon, owns up and admits, "I still don't fully get it."
40 of 43 people found the following review helpful
on November 10, 2011
Julian Barnes has long been a practiced and accomplished writer. His latest novel combines two genres from his much earlier writing career : the pacy thriller (the Duffy detective novels) and the bildungsroman coming of age novel (Metroland, his first book). It is a slim novel, only 150 pages, though it packs much in. It succeeds in being that rarest of novels - a gripping page turner, where the reader is nevertheless restrained from turning the pages too quickly for fear of missing out on the gem like insights into the hum an condition presented on every page: `What possible evolutionary purpose could nostalgia serve? being a fine example. Like many of Barnes' books, it is best to roll them around the palate like a fine burgundy rather than wolf them down all at once. Potboilers they are not.
The novel is a classic of the short form, narrated by Tony, a middling, mundane, middle class sort of man (we are invited to read much into his 2:1 history degree from Bristol). He reflects firstly History Boy style on his school history lessons, then more sinisterly on the way in which these have impacted on his life -in particular relating to the mysterious suicide of his mercurial philosophy reading friend Adrian Finn.
Later on life, amicably divorced, and muddling fairly comfortably towards old age, Tony is forced to revisit his youth by a small inheritance and fragment of a diary received from the will of the mother of his former girlfriend, Veronica, (Tony's youthful encounter with Veronica's family is discussed earlier in the book, and is subsequently revealed to be a key episode in Tony's life).
The second half of the novel is a gripping tale of one man's attempts to uncover the mysteries of this inheritance from the elusive and difficult Veronica, and also the truth about Adrian's suicide (the fragment is from Adrian's diary).
Tony is forced to revisit his past, and consider how the lessons of school history morph into something rather more elusive and complex once real life is lived, and memory is a far more mutable thing than many people give credit for.
The title comes into sharp focus right at the end of the book. In one sense it is about death and mortality, themes which overhang the novel like dark boughs of a tree, but, in addition from this, the novel ends with a shocking revelation, then a final twist which force the reader to reconsider much of what Tony has revealed over the previous pages.
I have read all of Barnes' novels and essays and would rate this as one of his best. It is not perfect. A touch too clever perhaps, the surprising twist may fail to satisfy some readers (I think it throws some of the carefully weighted components of the previous pages out of kilter). Flaubert's Parrot is, for me, the best thing Barnes has written, but this comes close.
98 of 112 people found the following review helpful
on January 5, 2012
I really enjoyed this Christmas present. Although I spent a couple of days trying to figure it out and also read through all the posts here, I finally came to an answer that satisfied me enough not to leave the book in an annoyed, unanswered state. I like endings :-)
So here is my interpretation of the whole - DO NOT READ ON IF YOU HAVEN'T READ THE BOOK YET!
My approach was that one can obviously not rely on Tony's memories and so can only focus on documents and put these into context according to remembered statements. The latter based on the assumption that Julian Barnes wants us to find the answer and so put in enough true indications to enabe us to put the picture together.
I started with a chronology of events:
End of second year: V and T break up.
Middle of third year: A writes T to inform about relationship with V. T writes card back, that OK.
End of third year: T writes letter to A, that his relationship with V is not OK.
6 months later, A is dead.
3 months prior to his death, A is heading to Chistlehurst and is in love.
My reckoning is that Adrian went out with Veronica until he received Tony's letter. A had written T that he would reconsider his relationship should T not approve and based on what we know about A, we can assume that he would have followed through on that when T wrote that he was definitely not OK with them seeing oneanother. Perhaps A spoke with Sarah, but perhaps not - based on the way S spoke with T on his visit, it is safe to assume that she behaved in a similar way towards A and a relationship could have happened even without Tony telling A in his letter to talk to Sarah about V's failings. I reckon A realised this as well, as he started to write in his diary before the page ran out.
I think A split up with V soon after receiving T's letter, as there are only 6 months between the letter and A's death. His statement of being in love can only be regarding S and not V, as it is highly unlikely that he is in love with V, splits up with her, gets together with S and finds out about her being pregnant within 3 months - even if S has a very regular cycle.
Based on the relationship equations in his diary, A had a successful relationship with both V and S. As the second equation states AxS and A+V, we can figure (plain maths) that A valued his relationship with S higher than that with V. This is confirmed by S's statement in her will-letter to T stating that A was happy in his last months (ie happier than before).
One can read the second equation chronologically based on A's preceeding statement on accumulation at the racetrack. The equation then reads (note the missing () around either T+V+A or around AxS in the equation): first T was with V, then V was with A and then A was with S. This chronology led to B - the baby. The x between A and S can also be a reference to the racetrack accumulation analogy, whereby profits from success of one horse (A's relationship with V) engrosses the stake on the next horse (A's relationship with S). Which fits to A being more in love and happier with S than with V but this union ending in disaster (handicapped baby and suicide).
I reckon that the suicide is A's philosophical consequence along the lines of Robson's suicide (or at least the T's memory of their judgement of it). A cannot have known the foetus was handicapped, so there can only have been following motives: Fight with V over leaving her (don't think so as then A would not have been so happy in his last months), Fight with husband over A's relationship with S (don't think so as I think this is the 'damage' in V's family - unfaithful mother who fancies younger men, father who in response bonds with daughter and son and disassociates from mother and turns to drink whilst the brother chooses to see/hear/speak no evil and vents his damage in some certain way at university that makes him go around with a 'certain sort of people'), Fight with S over the baby. I think it is the baby - perhaps A didn't want to cause a child to be born into a broken family (his own background) and S didn't want to abort (as she wanted a new chance at a happy mother/child relationship). The only solution to this would be for S to divorce and A and S marry, but perhaps S refused to leave her husband, perhaps A was not yet willing to settle down and become the breadwinner or A didn't want to bring scandal on V's and S's family. I opt for fault with S due to the Blood Money paid T by S. As blood money is paid by a murderer to compensate for the loss, S paying it confirms that she sees herself as the cause for the suicide. This also fits to T wishing he had kept S's letter to him on his breakup with V - it would have been proof/corroboration of S going for younger men, perhaps even focussing on V's friends.
Either way, the baby as motive fits A's parting letter in which he talks about the gift of life and not having a choice of accepting or not. I don't think he means his own life but that of the baby - and if the receiver of the gift decides to renounce the nature of the gift (baby) and the conditions it comes with (see above), he has to draw the consequences (suicide so that S can do what she likes without A standing in her way). This fits with A's mindset and approach and is done in a way to correct all the perceived 'mistakes' made by Robson - It was philosophical, not self-indulgent, artistic and the educative opportunity was not missed.
Only things that remain clouded to me - perhaps because there isn't as much to find there as one might think at first sight - are Veronica and John. What happened to them after Adrian left Veronica. And was V really her monther'sand father's daughter? A found them looking quite different, but that could be a false memory based on this feelings of that weekend.
Would be interested to hear any alternative interpretations!
47 of 52 people found the following review helpful
on October 19, 2011
Now that it has won the prestigious Booker Prize for 2011, it's time to take a colder look at a very clever and mercifully short novel. I believe that there's always a strong feeling among Booker judges that if an author has narrowly missed the Prize on at least 3 occasions previously and that he or she is perhaps unlikely ever to do any better (because of age or failing faculties perhaps)then this one had better be given the award. Golding and Kingsley Amis are cases in point, for neither Paper Men nor The Old Fools are anything like their authors' best work. Be that as it may, here's my opinion:
This first person narrative is a study in obsessive guilt. Tony Webster looks back to his first encounter with Adrian Finn, the new boy at school. Adrian is obviously a cut above the rest of the lads; he is serious, logical and inquisitive, destined for great things at Cambridge University. Years later Tony hears of his suicide, a carefully arranged affair, with appropriate notes to family, friends and authorities. He had once told Tony that Camus maintained that suicide was the only true philosophical question. The subject arose when a fellow student, Robson, hanged himself after getting his girlfriend pregnant. What possible connection could there be between the fatal decision of the mediocre student Robson, whose last words read simply `Sorry, Mum' and the signing off of the genius Adrian?
The clue - to that part of the novel at least - lies in the relationship both Tony and Adrian have with a rather classy and prickly girl known as Veronica (later Mary) Ford, whose parents Tony visits for a disastrous week-end in Chislehurst, where he is treated rudely both by Veronica's father and her brother Jack, but kindly by Mrs Ford, Veronica's mother. Only in his later years, which absorb most of the second part of this slim novel, does Tony - and possibly the reader - begin to `get it' as Veronica continually puts it about her family situation. By then we have learned of an insulting letter Tony had written to the unhappy pair, Veronica and Adrian, which may or may not have been the trigger that caused his demise. The reader will need to read the novel a second time to pick up on the clues Barnes plants regarding the abortive love affair with the hostile Veronica. In fact the whole book is about unravelling mistaken notions, discovering hidden meanings in past conversations, finding new clues to understanding the self, its delusions and unintended slights with their unforeseen consequences.
I found the book both fascinating and frustrating, as was no doubt the author's intention. It is undoubtedly a clever book, but to me, as with the same author's Flaubert's Parrot, rather too cerebral, lacking the warmth of real human relationships. There are so many things the narrator and reader do not `get'. Why, for instance, should Tony continually pursue a girl, then the girl as woman, who was only using him as a plaything? It makes no sense to him or the reader. Is it sufficient to say that it is the donnée on which the whole book rests, just as other obsessives, like for instance Kemal in The Museum of Innocence or Charles Arrowby in The Sea, The Sea, expend vast energies in pursuit hopeless causes? The difference is that both Pamuk's and Murdoch's novels delve deep into the psyches of their narrators. We understand, sympathise and forgive them, even when they are boring us. At least Barnes's novel is too short to be boring. It is indeed, extremely readable and. in its own way, strangely haunting.
67 of 78 people found the following review helpful
on September 8, 2011
The middle-aged narrator, prematurely retired by American standards, in his early sixties, commences to reflect on his first love, and, properly divorced and available, becomes entangled in the lover's possible remergence in his life. As his introspection unfolds there is danger and error in understanding what had transpired in the course of youth. The momentum of the novella is exquisite beginning with mundane calm and escalating to anxious puzzlement and a surprise dénouement.
Not a coming of age story, though much at the front concerns the narrator's mates and other girlfriends, but a disquisition on the perils of wistful reflection. Rewinding the read, Barnes has the protagonist doomed from the start. Beautiful novella.
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on December 1, 2011
One of the very best things a book can do is teach us something about our own lives that we didn't know. Ever since I was a freshman in high school I was fascinated by a classmate. We did become friends, but never intimate. We talked all the way through college and only lost touch in our 30s (at her initiative). She was fond of telling me that `I just didn't get it" and eventually disappeared, I suspect, for that reason.
I had always wondered what it was that I `didn't get' but felt that it was somehow a true thing to say. We met again at our 50th high school reunion and much of the old feeling was still there. We spent much of the time together. At her request, I wrote to her after the gathering but never got a reply. I still, apparently, "didn't get it".
Then I opened this novel and was captivated since the theme was so familiar. But I found the ending, as have many other readers, just awful. I now see that I hated its very concreteness, its all-too-human reality, right down to a pseudo-algebraic expression of the solution. And so the the mystery of Veronica, which had intrigued the hero for all of his adult life, was over; in its place, a sad and depressing set of understandable causes and consequences.
Most important for me, the novel taught me that I in fact have no interest in finding out `what I don't get' about my own long lost childhood friend. I want to savor the mystery, even this late in my life. I don't want to know if there were misshapen children, or felonies, or mental institutions or maybe nothing much at all. Now that I have read Mr. Barnes' novel, I am ready to lay a `veil of unknowing' over one small, but never 'finished' part of my life. I can instead continue to imagine all sorts of rich, mysterious possibilities.