jess's Reviews > The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
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Mar 08, 12

bookshelves: 2012-tob, 2012, fiction
Read in March, 2012


This is not the kind of book that I would normally pick up, except, of course, it's a contender for the Morning News Tournament of books. I finished it just in time, too, since it was in the first bracket of the TOB.

The Sense of an Ending is about Tony, a middle-aged, divorced, retired guy who receives an inheritance from the mother of his ex-girlfriend – five hundred pounds and the diary of his schoolmate who committed suicide some decades ago. This strange inheritance turns Tony's life in an altogether unplanned direction as he tries to suss out the details of his late friend's life and his awkward tension with the ex-girlfriend who refuses to give him the diary.

Barnes provides an obsessive perspective of a man looking back at his life. He illustrates how memories become skewed with time, how regret, loss, ego and distance can alter perception. Tony revisits a letter he sent to his friend in their post-college years and realizes he is a different person than the guy who wrote the letter. Near the end he reflects on his vain attempt to turn time backwards, to "make the blood flow backwards,” which provides the central tension of the story between Tony’s nostalgia and reality. He’s so clueless about what he’s really doing and what his motivations are. I was touched by this feeling that things were winding down for him while he wasn't aware of it. Barnes exposes the scaffolding of the story to the reader but I felt a little embarrassed for seeing so much more than the narrator could see.

I loved the way Barnes built Tony’s character. Tony, has the quirky habit of saying "someone once said...." or "who was it that once said...?" or "an englishman once said..." which gave me the sense that he was both well-read and a little absent-minded about details. I didn't even mind much that he was a straight, white, successful, well-educated dude, although I often have a hard time emotionally connecting with characters like that... he seemed so human and broken in the ways that life wears you down.

The writing is delicious. I was highlighting things on my kindle every few pages. Like, History isn't the lies of the victors, as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt; I know that now. It's more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated. I feel like I know so much about Tony in both his adolescence and middle-age when I read that line. Or this one: Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn't all it's cracked up to be. His futility and resignation are palpable here.

Personally, I'm in this weird saturn returns "omg I’m turning 30 in a few months what have i done with my life!??!" retrospective place right now. This book just touched me in a tender place at a precisely good moment for me. However, I could see/hope to see myself on the cusp of forty and fifty revisiting this book to see how it fits me plus a few more decades. This is the kind of book I want to come back to. Also, a good book if you find yourself sympathetic to the plight of the heterosexual, Some Englishman once said that marriage is a long dull meal with the pudding served first.
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