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Book Review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

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So, this won the Man Booker prize, huh?  I can’t say that I was utterly enamored of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, a character’s recollection of his youth, description of his adulthood, and exploration of the way in which the unresolved stories of his earlier days still touch upon his life.  I found some of the author’s plot decisions a bit irritating and thought their silliness detracted from the force of the work.  But the writing was great, and there were certainly a number of lines/insights that struck my fancy.

I haven’t read anything about the meaning of the novel’s title.  But I’ll discuss it as I experienced the book, as an exploration of when and how we make peace with those things that feel unfinished in our lives or those experiences that leave us with much unanswered.  What subsequent events or revelations allow us, make us ready to feel the “sense of an ending,” to be at peace with the travails of our youth or even recent history?

During the protagonist’s recollection of his schoolboy days, he remembers a history class during which his childhood friend raises a theory of history that all that may be said of any historical event is that “something happened.”  We try to ascribe meaning to both those histories personal to us and those of a larger scale. And they who study these puzzles seek to give reasons; what precipitated such an event and how might it fit in the “scheme” of things.  But is there such an order, or only our desperate attempts to avoid the pain of a world without sense?  And though we may “succeed” in discovering patterns and potential explanations, all we know for certain is that these events did in fact occur.

In one passage, the protagonist describes how the parents of he and his childhood friends thought each was being influenced to some youthful wrongdoing by the other.  “How far their anxieties outran our experience,” he muses.  Though this was but one paragraph of the book and the concept is not expressly repeated, I perceived this idea as another theme of Barnes’ work, one not entirely removed from that discussed above.  Anxiety and our commonly solipsistic natures enable us to build worlds of delusion in our explanations and predictions about things.  These are often accompanied by anticipated pain and suffering far greater than that which most of us ultimately endure.  We trade constantly in flawed perceptions of the present and future, mistakes as to how we are received by others; about the characters and stories that unfold around us.

Which brings me ’round to the title.  Perhaps the true “sense of an ending” is that there is rarely a comfortable conclusion to things; closure is elusive because life’s stories do not oblige us by being so neat.   Maybe the peace to be found is in the acceptance that there is none; answers will continue to evade us.  What exists as Barnes concludes is, “accumulation…responsibility.  And beyond these, there is unrest.  There is great unrest.”

About Nili Wexler