Aldrin's Reviews > The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
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's review
Sep 28, 2011

it was amazing
Recommended to Aldrin by: Man Booker Prize 2011 Shortlist
Read 2 times. Last read September 28, 2011 to September 30, 2011.

In the last sentence of the first paragraph of the new, Booker-shortlisted novella “The Sense of an Ending,” the narrator states that “what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.” Preceding it is a short list of what he remembers: “a shiny inner wrist,” “steam rising from a wet sink,” “gouts of sperm circling a plughole,” “a river rushing nonsensically upstream,” “another river,” and “bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door.” Following it is a hundred-plus-page expansion of these remembrances, which, like any number of memories drawn from different points in time and space, are only vaguely, if at all, congruous. Coming from a self-confessed unreliable narrator, it serves as both an advance apology and a fair warning. 

The narrator is one Tony Webster. Comfortably retired and amicably divorced in his sixties, he otherwise seems like the flying arrow in one of Zeno’s famous paradoxes of motion: no more capable of moving to where he is not than of moving to where he already is. In such a predicament his only possibility of motion is of the nature of an illusion, but it’s motion nevertheless, and he’s willing to take it. Troubled by the death of an erstwhile close friend and confronted by the imminence of his own, he looks back on his life and splices a great many recollections, resolving his instantaneous immobilities into a continuous movement. In a further development worthy of Borges, where he is not and where he is are one and the same, and that point—that sense—is the slight perception beautifully articulated in the book’s title. It’s what he’s struggling to clamber toward even as it’s already on the ground beneath his feet.

Tony, in his endeavor to make sense of things past and present, ascends into a Prufrockian analysis of time and mortality, making “The Sense of an Ending,” structurally, a memoir filled with confessions, digressions, and assertions. What more potent way of knowing, of remembering, than writing for and in spite of oneself? 

He begins in his youth, specifically on the fateful school day he and his two bosom buddies befriend Adrian Finn. Adrian proves to be a very intellectual person, not unlike his newfound friends, but his mind is of a particularly astute slant. A debate on whether one person is culpable for starting the First World War is brought to an end when he answers, “That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.” Then, upon learning that one of their schoolmates hanged himself after getting his girlfriend pregnant, Adrian invokes Camus, saying that “suicide is the only true philosophical question.” So, when Adrian himself does commit suicide years later, at which point he and Tony have long had a falling-out over another key character (a woman, natch), Tony is understandably quick to construe the act as a rejection of freedom, per Adrian’s preferred philosopher. But a letter appears in Tony’s mailbox suggesting otherwise, and Tony turns into something of a historian, one who must seek verifiable corroboration lest his only source be his fallible memory, sperm and all. 

Hence the mea culpa cum caveat in the beginning of “The Sense of an Ending.” That statement is in agreement with the belief of the book’s real author, Julian Barnes, who is practically the same age as Tony Webster. (Whom else would Tony be a stand-in for, with his frequent dives into quotability short of ostentation?) Barnes writes in his previous book, “For the older writer, memory and the imagination begin to seem less and less distinguishable. This is not because the imagined world is really much closer to the writer’s world than he or she cares to admit (a common error among those who anatomize fiction) but for exactly the opposite reason: that memory itself comes to seem much closer to an act of imagination than ever before.” That book of nonfiction is Barnes’s meditation on memory and death, and its title, “Nothing to Be Frightened Of,” sounds like an optimistic description of the title of Tony’s own meditation on memory and death, itself borrowing from Frank Kermode’s “The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction.” “Nothing to Be Frightened Of” may also be a phrase of consolation for Tony as he goes about his quest for closure since it may well be that the historian himself is the culprit unknowing.
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Quotes Aldrin Liked

Julian Barnes
“History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

Reading Progress

Finished Reading (Paperback Edition)
September 28, 2011 – Started Reading
September 28, 2011 – Shelved
September 30, 2011 – Finished Reading
April 21, 2017 – Shelved (Paperback Edition)

Comments (showing 1-20 of 20) (20 new)

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Angus Veronica's rating and your review makes me believe that Barnes should really get this year's Booker. Your review also makes it sound like Banville's The Sea and Enright's The Gathering, two past Booker winners.

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Aldrin But I understand you had a less than stellar experience with The Gathering, di ba? Like Ronnie, I absolutely liked this book. Very introspective without being awfully maudlin. Looking forward to your thoughts on this, Angus.

Angus Not stellar but I like how it is written. The plot just gets dragging at times because the narrator keeps revising her memories in such a manner that you throw the book and yet pick it up after reconsidering. Imagine the narrator changing her mind halfway and then you start doubting your understanding of the plot.

And I'm a stingy rater, so 3-stars might be 4-stars for the more generous reader.

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Aldrin I can't say for sure if the narrator of The Sense of an Ending is not possessed of the same indecision as the narrator of The Gathering seems to be experiencing since I haven't yet read the latter. But the narrator of the former does have a habit of reiterating the unreliability of his memory.

Angus The narrator's deliberate restructuring of her memories is not what you would describe as unreliable. The book has a lot of haters, but I notice that highbrow readers love it. You might love it. :D

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Aldrin I'll take that as a compliment. Haha. I had a copy of The Gathering once but I gave it away since I have the ebook and I frequently see it in Book Sale anyway. I'm more interested in reading Enright's new novel, The Forgotten Waltz.

Angus So that's the next after Yesterday's Weather? Yes, that's a compliment. I could not associate it with not so cerebral people. Shh! LOL.

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Aldrin Hahaha! Yes, and I hear it's one of the books overlooked by this year's Booker judges, along with Ali Smith's There But For The. Among the other shortlisted books this year, Jamrach's Menagerie is the most appealing to me. Might read that next. I regret giving my unread copy of The Sisters Brothers to Kristel last meetup. Haha.

Angus Jamrach's Menagerie's cover looks like the Sceptre edition of Cloud Atlas. And I was a quite disappointed that Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child did not make it (I have been debating with myself whether to follow Hollinghurst or not). It's one more week before the announcement!

Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly Nice review! I've read "Nothing to be Frightened Of", however, and the only optimistic thing there is the title. Barnes, in its cover, even looked scared.

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Aldrin @Angus This just won the Man Booker Prize. I'm sure Veronica is delighted, too. Get with the program!

@Joselito I've only read parts of "Nothing to be Frightened Of," all of which are arresting. I think the "Nothing" in the title does not carry the conventional meaning of the word but rather a metaphysical one in the sense that that Nothing is purely that: nothing, an absence, a darkness, an abyss to be rationally frightened of. Barnes was only wise to communicate that fear in his scared-looking cover photo.

Angus Yay! I'll hunt for a copy; it's high time to join the bandwagon. Where did you get yours?

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Aldrin I only have the ebook. I expect it'll be popping up here soon now that it has won.

Angus It should. But I haven't seen last year's winner, The Finkler Question, in any local book store.

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Aldrin I saw it once sa Fully Booked High Street. I have the ebook, still unread. Emma Donoghue's Room seems like the bigger hit, no?

Angus Oo nga eh, and it has an even lower average rating than The Gathering (which I thought was the least favorite Booker). I've been seeing Donoghue books at Book Sale. I haven't read Room yet.

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Aldrin I thought the least favorite Booker winner was Kelman's How Late It Was, How Late. I read Room in January and thought it was just okay. I have a strange stirring to reread it, though, in hopes of maybe liking it more the second time.

Angus How Late has a significantly better average rating than the early Bookers (Holiday, Something to Answer for, et al). But if we talk about its literary merits, I can't tell. I haven't even seen a copy of it yet.

I see some of our TFG friends not loving Room.

message 19: by Ranee (new)

Ranee have you seen Memento? is this somewhat similar, in plot at least?

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Aldrin Ranee wrote: "have you seen Memento? is this somewhat similar, in plot at least?"

Not really, although both tackle the malleability of memory.

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