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Book Review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

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Arthur & George was the first book I read of Julian Barnes and The Sense of an Ending is my second. In Arthur and George there was a big surprise and there are twists in The Sense of an Ending as well. Oh! And Arthur and George made it to the short list of Booker in 2005 but this one went all the way to win the Booker in 2011.

The Sense of an Ending is a short book. Around 150 pages. One of the Booker judges remarked that the book says a lot with so less pages and deserves to be read more than once. I would have to agree with her.

Characterization is the strong point. The narrator’s flaws are hinted through his actions making him real. Barnes gives us interesting perspectives through his characters. This occurs, for instance, when the narrator remarks about email’s immediacy and spontaneity, or why he loathes soccer because the players are vain and overpaid and are out there just to hate the opposite team’s players, or what he thinks about marriage and newer generation.

The language crackles with intelligence and wit, for instance, when the narrator mentions a “sycophantic” laughter when the history teacher presents a joke. Or when the narrator says his bookshelf is what he strives to be, while his girlfriend’s bookshelf reflects her true personality. Or what the teen characters think about the purpose of school sports and life in general.

But The Sense of an Ending is mainly about memory. And how history is obscure and probably doesn’t tell the truth. The book is also about aging, remembering, emotional damage, and regret.

The story starts with Tony Webster recollecting his school days and his three friends, out of which Adrian Finn is the most intelligent and more serious. Adrian is also different from the rest three in many other ways, such as he likes playing the clarinet, the rest don’t. I wished I could know more about Adrian but then that would have probably defeated the purpose of the book.

Aptly, there are interesting interactions between the history teacher and the boys. After school, the four boys go their different ways. They keep in touch through letters. Tony has a girlfriend named Veronica. Both are misfit for each other. Veronica leaves Tony to be with Adrian. Tony goes to the states and when he comes back he receives shocking news.

Time flies by and Tony has a career, marries, has kids, and divorces. Times have changed but he deliberates: Has he changed? He receives a letter from the lawyer of Veronica’s mother and tries to get in touch with Veronica. He ponders about why he was the recipient of the letter, why some events connected to Adrian and Veronica occurred, and whether they occurred because of his actions. He tries to connect with Veronica to seek the answers. 

The book set me thinking about history. Does history always hide something? Does history truly capture why an event occurred or what the person whose history is being scrutinized was really like? If history of one person is created by memory of another, isn’t memory sometimes vague? Is memory self-edited unconsciously or consciously to hide facts? Can memory be forced?

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