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The Sense of an Ending Paperback – May 29, 2012
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“Elegant, playful, and remarkable.” —The New Yorker
“A page-turner, and when you finish you will return immediately to the beginning.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Beautiful. . . . An elegantly composed, quietly devastating tale.” —Heller McAlpin, NPR
“Dense with philosophical ideas. . . . It manages to create genuine suspense as a sort of psychological detective story.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Evelyn Waugh did it in Brideshead Revisited, as did Philip Larkin in Jill [and] Kazuo Ishiguro in The Remains of the Day. Now, with his powerfully compact new novel, Julian Barnes takes his place among the subtly assertive practitioners of this quiet art.” —The New York Times Book Review
“[A] jewel of conciseness and precision…. The Sense of an Ending packs into so few pages so much that the reader finishes it with a sense of satisfaction more often derived from novels several times its length.” —The Los Angeles Times
“Exquisitely crafted, sophisticated, suspenseful, and achingly painful, The Sense of an Ending is a meditation on history, memory, and individual responsibility.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Clever, provocative. . . . A brilliant, understated examination of memory and how it works, how it compartmentalizes and fixes impressions to tidily store away.” —The Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Concisely written and yet rich and full of emotional depth. . . . It’s highly original as well. And complicated, just like life.” —New York Journal of Books
“Elegiac yet potent, The Sense of an Ending probes the mysteries of how we remember and our impulse to redact, correct—and sometimes entirely erase—our pasts.” —Vogue
“Ominous and disturbing…. This outwardly tidy and conventional story is one of Barnes’s most indelible [and] looms oppressively in our minds.” —The Wall Street Journal
“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.” —Jane Juska, The San Francisco Chronicle
“With his characteristic grace and skill, Barnes manages to turn this cat-and-mouse game into something genuinely suspenseful.” —The Washington Post
“Ferocious. . . . A book for the ages.” —Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Concisely written and yet rich and full of emotional depth. . . . At times, side-splittingly funny, at others, brutally honest, but always delightfully well observed. . . . Ironically, despite focusing on endings, and on suicide, this is a tremendously life-affirming work. It’s highly original as well. And complicated, just like life.” —New York Journal of Books
“Elegiac yet potent, The Sense of an Ending probes the mysteries of how we remember and our impulse to redact, correct – and sometimes entirely erase – our pasts. . . . Barnes’s highly wrought meditation on aging gives just as much resonance to what is unknown and unspoken as it does to the momentum of its own plot.” —Vogue
“Novel, fertile and memorable . . . . A highly wrought meditation on aging, memory and regret.” —The Guardian (London)
“A brilliant, understated examination of memory and how it works, how it compartmentalizes and fixes impressions to tidily store away. . . . Clever, provocative. . . . Barnes reminds his readers how fragile is the tissue of impressions we conveniently rely upon as bedrock.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
"Brief, beautiful. . . . That fundamentally chilling question—Am I the person I think I am?—turns out to be a surprisingly suspenseful one. . . . As Barnes so elegantly and poignantly reveals, we are all unreliable narrators, redeemed not by the accuracy of our memories but by our willingness to question them." —The Boston Globe.
“Quietly mesmerizing. . . . A slow burn, measured but suspenseful, this compact novel makes every slyly crafted sentence count.” —The Independent (London)
"Deliciously intriguing...with complex and subtle undertones [and] laced with Barnes' trademark wit and graceful writing." —The Washington Times
About the Author
Julian Barnes is the author of twenty previous books including, most recently, Keeping an Eye Open. He has received the Man Booker Prize, the Somerset Maugham Award, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the David Cohen Prize for Literature and the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; in France, the Prix Médicis and the Prix Femina; and in Austria, the State Prize for European Literature. In 2004 he was named Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. His work has been translated into more than forty languages. He lives in London.
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This book explores Tony Webster, his friends, and his meeting with Adrian Finn at school. They were all sex-crazed, book obsessed, and gawky as they traded off-color jokes, rumors, witty gossip, and wanking experiences. Adrian’s life turned to tragedy and they all moved on, trying to forget. Tony, now middle-aged, has a career, is once-divorced, seems to get along with ex-wife and daughter, and certainly has no desire to hurt anyone. But a lawyer’s letter, and an unexpected bequeathment that seems to be impossible to obtain, throws up a fog of past experiences and reflections that create hazy moments for me.
So here we have a prize-winning writer, author of several well-received books, with, in my mind, an obsession for turning phrases into indecipherable contemplation. Many words have been used to describe Barnes’s writing. Precise, dexterous, disturbing, insightful, elegiac, and provocative are just a few. His mother, deeming him as having too much imagination, complained that his first book was a “bombardment” of filth. Perhaps mother knows best.
I did not find this chronicle on getting old, struggling with memories, and being plagued with regret an easy or enjoyable read. So I crawl back to the cabbage patch and await the remarks from my erudite fellow reading club members to help me make some sense of it all.
Schuyler T Wallace
Author of TIN LIZARD TALES
Instead, it is intensely compelling and disturbing, a thought-provoking book that demands you reflect on your own life, your own past, your own memories.
The book is divided into two parts. That’s the kind of meaningless piece of information that normally alerts the reader of a review that the reviewer has nothing meaningful to say, but it is important here because the first part is a more or less straight forward account of a sequence of events in the narrator’s youth as he remembers them. The second part, almost twice as long as the first, is the narrator’s attempt to unravel the skein of memory and to reconcile reality both with memory and with what Faulkner once called “the irrevocable might-have-been.” And therein lies the book’s genius.
Memory is tenuous and all too unreliable, sometimes even recent memory. It is the secular reason why I don’t believe in the death penalty (I also have religious objections): it is all too easy for memory to deceive us, to trick us into believing A when it was really B all along. I was once involved in a criminal police investigation and asked to give certain information. When it came to describing the suspect’s car, I answered with great certainty that it was brand new and bright red. I remember the blank looks on officers’ faces. The suspect’s car was brand new and bright blue. I had seen it, I had seen it clearly. I had even stood looking at it for several minutes, but because it was a new model, magazines were filled with ads, and television commercials ran on every network, showing bright red models and memory had conflated the two in my mind.
In the same way, one of the key points in The Sense of an Ending hinges on a letter which the narrator remembers one way in Part One, but which we—and he—discover in Part Two to have been very different than his memory would have it. (The phrasing of that sentence should give you a clue to what the reality was.)
The letter is pivotal because the narrator believes it to have set off a sequence of events he deeply regrets, and he is forced to reexamine his own story of himself. And that is what Barnes is asking us to do, to determine if the history of our lives is accurate, or if we have made convenient cuts and edits, or perhaps added a few cunning and subtle embellishments over the years, to diminish this painful reality here or that uncomfortable truth over there. We all long to be a little better than we are, and the stories of our lives, the stories we tell ourselves and others, reflect that longing, consciously or unconsciously.
In Atonement, Ian McEwan’s central character wants desperately to undo something she did as a child, something she too deeply regrets, and that novel ends with recognition of the futility of trying to change the past. We do terrible things, sometimes, intentionally or unintentionally, and we must learn to live with the consequences of those mistakes. Julian Barnes is also writing about living with consequences, about living with ourselves as we really are, and his narrator, like the narrator of Atonement, finally accepts that. But unlike the narrator of Atonement, Barnes’ narrator does not deliberately create a lie to satisfy his longing, unless you consider pushing the past aside—storing it in an unused closet of the mind—a kind of lie. Instead, his encounter with the reality of the past is thrust upon him and he must slowly come to grips with what really was, some of which may have been partially his own doing, some of which was not.
As long as I’m comparing the two novels, I find Ian McEwan’s writing to be much more emotionally engaging than Julian Barnes’. I read somewhere once that Barnes’ brother is a philosopher, and I can readily believe it because that kind of detached, cerebral quality permeates everything I have read by Barnes, including The Sense of an Ending. That is not to be construed as praise: I find the absence of emotional engagement and sensory detail off-putting, though I have no way of knowing if that is intentional on the author’s part or not. As my friend Dan Bronson (Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody) likes to say about writing (quoting Herman Melville’s letter to Nathaniel Hawthorn discussing writing): “I stand for the heart. To the dogs with the head! I had rather be a fool with a heart than Jupiter Olympus with his head.” Atonement is packed with such empathetic characters, including the little girl who ruins the lives around her, that you ache for them all. The Sense of an Ending has characters whose personalities are so reserved as to make them almost unknowable, and whose motivations and emotions we never fully understand, while the narrator, Tony, is completely emotionless in a frightfully British, stiff upper lip sort of way, so that at the end, when a bombshell is set off in what he thinks he understands about his life and actions and the memories of those two things, he simply ruminates on the advantages of thin chips (French fries) over fat ones. That’s not the best way to stir emotions in a reader either.
And yet… I have never before read a book straight through twice in a row, so clearly something in me was engaged, perhaps not by my heartstrings, but engaged nonetheless.