In approximately 150 pages we sweep through the life of Tony Webster from preparatory school to age sixty. Barnes presents us with an understated mystery as to my the Mother of Veronica would leave Tony 500 Pounds and the diary of his childhood friend Adrian who committed suicide. Not only is it a mystery to the reader, but it is a mystery to Tony as well, because along the way, Tony's become a man who took life as it came and played it safe.
Most of us have a bit of Tony in us. We each have those humiliating moments in our lives that we successfully forget during the day. After they return to us in our dreams we put our own spin on those moments offering plausible explanations that assuage our humiliation. Is Tony Webster an unreliable narrator? Oh, yes, but no more than any one of us on any given day, if we have the honesty to admit it.
And a bit more of Tony that lies within each of us--those things we thoughtlessly said or wrote that we couldn't take back. I've salved my conscience more than once with the platitude, "Well, it really wasn't all that bad." Of course, the damage of our words is far greater than we oft care to admit.
Adrian is new to Tony's clique of friends. However, Adrian is accepted. It's soon obvious that Adrian is brighter, more thoughtful, and has a more realistic view of the world than Tony and his companions. When their history instructor asks for a definition of history, London teenager Tony Webster answers, “History is the lies of the victors.” Their instructor acknowledges he expected Tony's response, reminding him that history consists also with the delusions of the defeated. Tony’s brilliant friend, Adrian Finn, “a tall, shy boy,” answers the same question with “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
What just transpired is a message to the reader that what we remember is not always what actually happened. And this is a cue to keep us as readers on our toes throughout the reading of this brilliant little novel.
Adrian is always one step ahead of Tony. In College, Adrian will take a First. Tony will take a Second, no dishonor, of course, but exceptional? No. Within three years of finishing college, Tony is married to a woman with "clear edges" who subsequently runs off with a restaurant man. Daughter Susie see it all Tony's fault, though he's the one who remained at home and took no other lover.
The central events of Tony's reminiscences surround his youthful relationship with Veronica. She, too, it brighter and more perceptive to the realities of life than Tony. Prior to her visit to his room, he hides his favorite albums to avoid the embarrassment of her discovery of them.
Soundtrack from "A Man and a Woman
He also knows from previous conversations that Tchaikovsky is also less than sophisticated to Veronica's taste. Those albums must also be stashed away. However, what meets Veronica's eye pleases her. And what follows is most satisfactory, bouts of infra-sex that excite but do not lead to orgasm, which to Tony's surprise does not leave him unsatisfied.
The trouble begins when Veronica wants to meet Tony's friends and her eyes land on Adrian. He's clearly a step up from Tony. Their relationship dies. It is only after Veronica breaks off the relationship she approaches Tony to sleep with him which he does rather lackadaisically, to prove to her that his loss of her to Adrian is no great loss.
Tony cheerily sends off a postcard to Adrian wishing him and Veronica the best, Old Bean. But what he doesn't remember nearly forty years later is the cruel and heartless letter he sent to Adrian and Veronica, preceding Adrian's suicide.
When notified that he is the heir to Adrian's diary, Tony discovers that it is in Veronica's possession. It is Veronica who sends Tony's heartlessly cruel letter which sends Tony spiralling into remorse which is too late, which will earn no forgiveness.
Barnes speeds to a denouement that will cause the reader to question what they have just read, which is just fine. For this is one novel that will easily lead to a second or even third read. This is one not to be missed. There's always time for the remaining four finalists. I'm sure they're quite good. But I wouldn't have missed A Sense of an Ending for the reward of reading any of the others. Highest Recommendation.
“It's surprising how much of memory is built around things unnoticed at the time”-- Barbara Kingsolver