Cecily's Reviews > The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
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Apr 09, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: miscellaneous-fiction, unreliable-narrators
Read from April 09 to 20, 2012 , read count: 1

This is an exploration of memory, exquisitely written as the thoughts of an old man, looking back on his life - good enough to merit 5*, despite the somewhat contrived ending (ironic, given the title).


It opens with six watery images (an unexpected word in several of them makes them more vivid), each of which form part of the story:

“I remember, in no particular order:
- a shiny inner wrist;
- steam rising from a wet sink as a frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;
- gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house;
- a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torch beams;
- another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;
- bath water long gone cold behind a locked door.”


Tony and his three friends were somewhat pretentious teenagers, from moderately privileged backgrounds (“one of those suburbs which has stopped concreting over nature at the very last minute, and ever since, smugly claimed rural status”). They are on the cusp of going to university. As they go their separate ways, they stay in touch to greater or lesser extents, but events of their youth echo across the years, and as he approaches retirement, Tony tries to draw the threads together and make sense of his life. Very self-absorbed (and not especially likeable), but if anything, I think that makes the book more interesting.

In particular, there are two rather unbalanced relationships that left their mark: with Adrian (who joined school later than the others) and his first proper girlfriend, Veronica. He suffers “pre-guilt: the expectation that she was going to say something that would make me feel properly guilty”.

Despite this, and a couple of shocking incidents, Tony is not unhappy with the course of his life, though he is not entirely happy either. His reference to the “small pleasures and large dullnesses of home” is apt. Although he was at university in the sixties, “Most people didn’t experience the sixties until the seventies”, though he experienced a confusing mix of the two. Nostalgia doesn’t help, “the powerful recollection of strong emotions – and regret that such feelings are no longer present in our lives”. Can you reverse remorse to guilt and forgiveness?

Memory, History, Truth

The recurring theme is the accuracy, or inaccuracy, of memory, coupled with the effects of time. Tony is forever musing on memory, history and truth. Revelations prompt further re-evaluation and interpretation. Maybe none of this is true (some elements of the plot and the behaviour of key characters are implausible, or at least, not adequately explained), but does it matter anyway? Surely that is the point Barnes is making.

Many books feature unreliable narrators but it's quite refreshing to read one where the narrator is pondering their own unreliability.

Tony is honest about his dishonesty as a narrator (except that he constantly says his relationship with his daughter is closer than it appears from what he describes), and constantly ponders on it:

* “What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you witnessed.”

* “If I can’t be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impression those facts left.”

* It gets harder with age: “As the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been”, and “memory becomes a thing of shreds and patches”.

* “When we are young we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.”

* “The history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it’s the most deliquescent.”

* “History is that certainty produce at the point where the imperfection of memory meets the inadequacy of documentation.”

* “Mental states can be inferred from actions… Whereas in the private life, I think the converse is true: that you can infer past actions from current mental states.” Similarly, X “thought logically, and then acted on the conclusion of logical thought. Whereas most of us… do the opposite: we make an instinctive decision, then build up an infrastructure of reasoning to justify it”.

* “It takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability.”


In the end, the meaning 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”!

Some people dislike Tony so much that that it taints their enjoyment of the entire book, but to some extent Tony is everyman and we are all Tony, which leads me to wonder if the dislikers are TOO like Tony for their own comfort!

This is a story that reveals far more with each encounter (like the film, The Sixth Sense): because you know the denouement, you spot the significance of trivial signs earlier on - and also notice the gaps where Tony, and probably the reader, has connected dots that shouldn't be. Petra nails this aspect in the final paragraph of her short, but perfectly formed, review here.

Related Books

This is SO much better than another of his multi-decade life stories, dating from 25 years earlier, Staring at the Sun (my review HERE).

Another short book in which a grumpy aging man reflects on his life makes an interesting contrast with this - though Yasmina Reza's Desolation (my review HERE) doesn't come out of the comparison favourably (only 2*).

And then there is John Banville, all of whose books seem to focus on, and are often narrated by such people. See my reviews HERE.

UPDATE re Film of 2017

I thought the film, released in April 2017 in the UK, was excellent. There was less about schooldays (fair enough), and Tony was slightly more likeable, which will help some who disliked the book for that reason. The narrative jumped about with Tony's understanding in a similar way to the book.

Three of the six watery images that open the book and this review are featured prominently.

It has a fabulous cast, including Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Harriet Walter, Michelle Dockery, Matthew Goode, Emily Mortimer, and James Wilby, and it mostly captured the tone and plot very well. See: imdb page.
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Quotes Cecily Liked

Julian Barnes
“What you end up remembering isn't always the same as what you have witnessed.”
Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

Reading Progress

02/21/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-50 of 65) (65 new)

Steve You back your points well with some great examples, Cecily. Tony had some wisdom, and a growing sense of self that I felt placed him a bit further along the likability scale. For those who dislike the book because they dislike Tony, I would say that they may have come to their criticism fairly if they believe that he is inconsistent with Barnes's established vision of him, or comes to behave in an implausible way. That wasn't the case for me. I may not have liked all of his actions or attitudes, but I felt like I understood them in human terms.

This was a very good book in my mind, too. And I agreed with your well-stated reasons why.

Cecily Like you, I have no objection to unpleasant protagonists or unreliable narrators, as long as the writing is good and the story is strong (and credible within its own world). Thus, although I can't say I liked Tony, I had some sympathy for him, and my enjoyment and appreciation of the book wasn't impaired.

Gary  the Bookworm Well Cecily, your review really shook me up. As I was reading about Tony, he seemed very familiar, yet still deplorably unlikable. I thought it was because I was reading this for a second time. Could it be that Tony is me (and every man, Steve!) Yikes! I think I need some ice cream...

Cecily If you recognise a bit of yourself in a book, it's usually because you're not too similar. (Whenever I've seen a really close parallel, the real life person can't see it at all.)

Enjoy your ice cream.

Gary  the Bookworm Your comment was more soothing than the ice cream!

Dolors wow, that was my-possible-next book to read.
And with that review it just leaped up to my-sure-next book to read!

Cecily It seems to be quite a polarising book, but I think it deserved all its plaudits and awards.

Dolors Just finished!
I've already seen a couple of very negative reviews about this book but I side with your POV.
I found the novel depressing, disheartening and distressing, but not as much as for the ending, which was pretty lame, but for the general atmosphere and the collateral topics, so well pictured: the passage of time, the veracity of our self made memories, the impotence of seeing there is no more time...
Can't say I liked Tony, but I liked the book. Yes, I did.
So thanks for the recommendation!

Cecily I'm glad you enjoyed it.

message 10: by K.D. (new) - rated it 4 stars

K.D. Absolutely Nice to see that you also enjoyed this, Cecily. I liked those images but never thought of listing them down. Great review.

message 11: by Mark (new) - rated it 3 stars

Mark Great review. I found this book excellent although i am conscious that I do not think I fully grasped the whole hinterland.

Cecily I know what you mean, Mark. I'm like that with some books, but I find it tends to happen less often now that I make notes as I go along, so I have material for a review (and read other people's reviews and comments).

message 13: by Mark (new) - rated it 3 stars

Mark yep, the reading of others' reviews and the threads that follow are a wonderful gift of GR

message 14: by Kate (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kate Diffley Reading The Sense of Ending - happy you gave it five stars as I am reading for one of my book clubs.

Cecily I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, Kate (though it does seem to be a rather divisive book). I've just finished another short book that is a grumpy aging man reflecting on his life, but it's not a patch on this one (Yasmina Reza's "Desolation" http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...).

Travelling Sunny Wonderful review! I checked this out from the library a few months ago, and didn't get around to reading it before I had to return it. It just never made it to the top of my to-read list. Now I think I'll be revisiting it again soon. :)

Dolors Cecily, reading this review once again reminded me that I should recommend you a novel I recently read which I think might appeal to you, even more if you appreciated Barnes's writing.
I'm talking about The Sea by John Banville. You'll see it's a controversial book, very poetic and languid, but also an introspective exploration of memory and the passage of time, and not for everybody. But still, I'd say his sublime writing is worth taking the risk! :)

Cecily Thanks. I see what you mean about it being divisive, but it looks worth a punt.

Kalliope I have to read this... but it is interesting that reactions have been so varied.

Valisa Iskandar Kalliope wrote: "I have to read this... but it is interesting that reactions have been so varied."

you jsut have to. I really love it!

Valisa Iskandar Cecily wrote: "Thanks. I see what you mean about it being divisive, but it looks worth a punt."

I think a lot of people finding nostalgia and revisting old memories to be difficult and sometimes painful. We start by *rewriting* our history by glossing over and editing our memories. For most of us it is the only way to move forward.

I think that's why this book while very gentle, languid and poetic is hard to read.

But I love it!

Cecily I think that's a good point, Valisa. We don't want to face up to our own self-deceit (especially if we are trying to forget painful experiences).

Dolors Precisely! Sometimes one needs to remember in order to let go! That's what Banville masterfully portrays, IMO, in his novel "The sea".

Arnie Excellent review!

message 25: by Lynne (last edited Jul 05, 2013 05:03AM) (new) - added it

Lynne King Cecily I've just seen your excellent review as I was on holiday when it appeared.

Getting older is a worrying time...

I was particularly intrigued with:

"What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you witnessed.”

So true! I kept diaries when I was working in Saudi Arabia in my twenties and a lot of them are seen completely different now! Time softens memories and that's probably a good thing.

Cecily Despite the worries, getting older is still better than the alternative!

I do have a few teenage diaries, which may be amusing to dig out, though I think they're usual angsty stuff, rather than relating to an exciting setting of another culture like Saudi Arabia. Mind you, just comparing memories with brother shows how inaccurate we (well, one of) is in what we remember.

message 27: by Nick (new) - rated it 5 stars

Nick Baam Nice review. You're forgetting a gem at the end though: 'You get towards the end of life--no, not life itself, but of something else: the end of any likelihood of change in that life.'
I.e., death itself.

Cecily Oops. Thanks for spotting the omission, Nick.

message 29: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will A very, very good review. I was going to "like" it but then I saw I already had! Did you re-review it?

Cecily I've been caught like that with other people's reviews, Will.

Yes, I have amended my review - to add a link to Petra's excellent one. (I quite often amend my reviews, but sometimes I untick the option to include it in the newsfeed.)

aPriL does feral sometimes Well, I didn't get it.

Lovely review, though!

Cecily Thanks, aPriL. Sometimes I find reviews that challenge my own opinions far more interesting than ones that confirm.

Genevieve This book made me realize that we're our own unreliable narrators. One of my faves. Your review reminded me why.

Cecily Genevieve wrote: "This book made me realize that we're our own unreliable narrators."

Ooh, that's a good angle.

message 35: by Jan (new)

Jan Rice I think I need some more Julian Barnes and that this should be the one. ☼

message 36: by Cecily (last edited Sep 04, 2015 02:25PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Cecily It's a short read, but it seems to divide readers. As you can see, I thought it was excellent.

message 37: by Jan (new)

Jan Rice As did many other friends whose input I respect! Plus I had a good experience with the only one of his I've previously read.

Andrew Smith Another outstanding review, Cecily.

message 39: by Cecily (last edited Nov 08, 2015 02:43PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Cecily Thank you! Part of the secret is reading books worth writing about.

Laysee Hi Cecily, I read this review twice and enjoyed the details that helped me recall this book more accurately. Your exploration of the themes was excellent. Outstanding review, as always. I plan to read his new book, The Noise of Time, as soon as it is available on Kindle.

Cecily Laysee wrote: "Hi Cecily, I read this review twice and enjoyed the details that helped me recall this book more accurately.... I plan to read his new book."

Thanks, Laysee. I may need to reread it myself to recall the book more accurately. ;)

I've heard Barnes talking about his new novel, music in general and Shostakovitch (whose music I enjoy) , but I'm not sure about the novel that's resulted. Maybe I'll just wait for your review.

Abubakar Mehdi Excellent Cecily, A very balanced and thoughtful review !

Cecily Abubakar wrote: "Excellent Cecily, A very balanced and thoughtful review !"

Thank you, Abubakar. You're very kind.

message 44: by Ravi (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ravi Gangwani Wow wow wow ... Hat's off to such such brilliantine review. I read this book three years ago and now your review compelled me to read this book again :)

Cecily Ravi wrote: "Wow wow wow ... Hat's off to such such brilliantine review. I read this book three years ago and now your review compelled me to read this book again :)"

Wow, thank you, Ravi. I hope you enjoy your reread. Keep a look out for the initial six images when they occur later in the book.

message 46: by Ravi (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ravi Gangwani Cecily wrote: "Ravi wrote: "Wow wow wow ... Hat's off to such such brilliantine review. I read this book three years ago and now your review compelled me to read this book again :)"

Wow, thank you, Ravi. I hope ..."

Yes I will keep in my mind those look outs ... Even now I have sensed some of them. And though through the doors of dissolved images I can see the jumbled pictures. Cecily I don't know and I know that I am tired of saying but it just i can't resist to say : You are brilliant in touching the same depth in the books (even sometimes deeper) that author himself (again that I believe) has not thought of delving the readers into :)

Cecily Ravi wrote: "...And though through the doors of dissolved images I can see the jumbled pictures."

A line worthy of Barnes. Beautiful.

Ravi wrote: "You are brilliant in touching the same depth in the books ..."

And now I'm blushing. Such praise is more than I deserve, and your own words are at least a match for it (see above). But many, many thanks, Ravi.

message 48: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Very astute review as usual, Cecily.

Cecily Ian wrote: "Very astute review as usual, Cecily."

A very kind comment, as usual, Ian. Thank you. Your own review is a superb take on the book, from a slightly different slant, as usual.

Somya Loved the review, Cecily. I couldn't have put it better, even if I could.

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