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The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
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's review
Nov 09, 2011

really liked it

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

How reliable is our memory? How accurate are our thoughts, analysis of situations, perception of people? Yet we live by them and interpret our experiences through these lenses. Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending plays with these subjective faculties and crafted a scenario that's captivating and with a touch of sensational surprise. A retired man looking back at his life, focusing on what he can remember about his friendships and their aftermath.

Three school buddies in the upper form, the narrator Anthony with his friends Alex and Colin, are happy to make acquaintance with a newcomer to their class, Adrian. Obviously superior in brain, culture, and self-composure, Adrian soon becomes the model they look up to. Post-secondary life leads them to different paths. Adrian naturally gets to Cambridge on scholarship, while Tony goes to Bristol to read history. There, he starts to go out with Veronica. One weekend, Veronica brings him home to meet her family. In Tony's memory, this is a humiliating episode. He leaves with bewilderment: Veronica's aloofness, her father's joking insults, her mother's mysterious gesture, and her brother's silent wink.

After that, Tony introduces Veronica to his friends. She seems to strike up a good rapport with Adrian right away, as her brother Jack is also in Cambridge. Later, Tony and Veronica break up. Tony moves on with his own life, and assumedly, others too with theirs... until he hears the shocking news about Adrian. To avoid a spoiler, I'll just leave it at that. Years passed, Tony marries Margaret, has a daughter Susie, and later, his marriage ends in divorce.

Tony is now retired, expecting a life that's bland and uneventful. Retired life may well be for him a natural drift of time, flat and oblivious. But he's roused by an unexpected letter from a solicitor one day, naming him to receive a small sum from someone he has only met once forty years ago, Veronica's mother. What's more intriguing is together with this money, he is to be left with Adrian's diary. Life to Tony now is a quest for what has actually happened, and the process has cast fearful doubts on his own memory and sense of personal history. In his retirement, Tony is awakened to re-interpret his past.

"... the history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it's the most deliquescent."

It will take his whole remaining life to solve the mystery of how real his perceptions are, and what has really happened in the lives of those he once known as close friends. Such queries only lead to a more taxing question: "Does he play a role in other people's fate?"

In just 150 pages, Barnes has opened a floodgate of inquiries into our subjective mind, carrying us through with a tantalizing story, towards an ending that makes one marvel at the power of the economy of words in the hands of a master storyteller.

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