The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

‘Too short for us’

‘Too short’

‘Not a novel’

‘46,000 words is a novella’

Those are direct quotes from rejection letters about my first (go at writing a) novel.  I mention this simply because The Sense of an Ending, at 150 pages, is about 46,000 words long, I reckon, give or take, which means by (those literary agents’) definition it’s not a novel, it’s a novella.  So presumably those same agents would take issue with the committee for the Mann Booker Prize – “no short stories or novellas” – who conferred the award on Barnes’ book in 2011.

Tony Webster is a retired Arts Administrator, divorcee, and grandfather of two.  He’s on good terms with his ex-wife and gets on well enough with his daughter.  He’s a member of the local history society and runs the library at the local hospital as a volunteer.  In other words, his life is entirely ordinary and unremarkable.

Into his ordinary life drops a legacy, £500 from Mrs Sarah Ford, a woman Tony has met only once some forty years ago when he was a student dating her daughter, Veronica. Unsurprisingly he’s puzzled; so when he discovers that Mrs Ford has also bequeathed him the diary of his old school friend, Adrian Finn, who subsequently dated Veronica before committing suicide – and that Veronica is withholding the diary – he’s…puzzled, still.  And so begins his campaign to extract from Veronica the diary and the story of why it was in Mrs Ford’s possession.

For a small book, The Sense of an Ending packs a big philosophical punch, grappling with the meanings of truth, perception and memory.  Is there such a thing as objective truth? If truth is subjective how to decide which perspective is most valid?  What about those who don’t survive to tell their tale? What if the survivors misinterpret or misremember? Tony, the sole narrator, presents his narrative as ‘my memory now of my reading then of what was happening at the time.’  It’s truth, his truth, and twice removed.

The plot is as multi-layered as the narrator’s perspective; soon after Tony thinks he’s solved the puzzle, Veronica tells him he still doesn’t ‘get it’. But although the final revelation surprised me – I had to read it twice to be sure I’d ‘got it’ – it didn’t entirely satisfy. Tony’s involvement is tangential, too flimsy to support the weight of the final paragraph (‘There is accumulation. There is responsibility…’).  I ‘get’ that it’s chaos theory, where a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can lead to a tornado in Texas, but that isn’t to say the butterfly is responsible.

Overall rating: ** (worth reading)


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