Dorothy's Reviews > The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
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's review
Oct 13, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: contemporary-literature
Read on October 13, 2012

This slim book by Julian Barnes which won the Man Booker Prize last year was an absolutely mesmerizing read for me. I could have read it in a single sitting, had I not had other things to do. The story of Tony Webster, a man in his 60s looking back over his life and meditating on the mysteries of how memory works and how time changes memory, hit me where I live.

Tony had passed through his early life in something of a sleepwalk. He never thought deeply about what he was doing or what was going on around him. He never understood, never bothered to try to understand the effect that his words and actions might have on others. He was simply oblivious to everything except his own senses.

As a young man, he had a coterie of three friends and a girlfriend but, eventually, the girlfriend broke up with him and as he grew older, he drifted away from all of them, finally losing contact. He went to America for a while, then, returning to England, he met Margaret and they married, had a daughter named Susie, and created a stable life together.

After several years of marriage, Margaret met another man who she found more exciting and she divorced Tony, but they continued to maintain an amicable relationship. Now in their retirement years, they are friends who lunch together and Susie is a friendly, if somewhat distant, part of Tony's life, along with her husband and their children.

And then, suddenly, unexpectedly, that long-ago, almost forgotten past comes surging back into Tony's life, overwhelming all the barriers he has built around himself and he meditates about how time changes one's perspectives:

But time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them. Time...give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical.

It's as if he were reading my heart and mind. The entire book, brief though it is, is dense with meditations like that. Most of the action is within Anthony Webster's mind as he looks back over his life and struggles to make sense of it all. Where did he go wrong? Where did he misunderstand? What could he have done to make things turn out differently for himself and for those who were close to him? In fact, how much responsibility does he bear for the death of one friend and the ruined relationships of others? As a young man, he had only considered his own hurt pride and feelings as he lashed out at others. How self-centered that young man now appears to the Tony in his 60s.

In my terms, I settled for the realities of life, and submitted to its necessities; if this, then that, and so the years passed. In Adrian's terms, I gave up on life, gave up on examining it, took it as it came. And so, for the first time, I began to feel a more general remorse - a feeling somewhere between self-pity and self-hatred - about my whole life. All of it. I had lost the friends of my youth. I had lost the love of my wife. I had abandoned the ambitions I had entertained. I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded - and how pitiful that was.

Again, it is as if he were looking into my soul and teasing out the regrets that live in the shadows there.

The philosophical ideas contained in this book are at once disturbing, suspenseful, sometimes funny, always graceful and brutally honest, and, in the end, very life-affirming. It is a complicated book, as all lives are complicated. I do not usually reread books over and over again, but this is one that I think that I will. It is so full of ideas and insights that I am sure that I missed much the first time around and I want to know them.

Here is one more meditation by Tony that struck deeply with me:

Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does; otherwise there wouldn't be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities; but that's something different, more like decoration. Perhaps character resembles intelligence, except that character peaks a little later: between twenty and thirty, say. And after that, we're just stuck with what we've got. We're on our own. If so, that would explain a lot of lives, wouldn't it? And also - if this isn't too grand a word - our tragedy.

Wonderful writing.

I confess I had not read Julian Barnes before, although, of course, I knew of him and his reputation. I will definitely now be seeking out more of his work. Someone who understands me so well must have more wisdom to impart, more guidance to give. Not only did his book win the Man Booker Prize for 2011, it wins the Dorothy Borders Prize for 2012 for the most insightful and influential book I have read all year - and I have read some very good ones.

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