The Sense of an EndingMiddle-aged Tony Webster receives a bequest from the will of the mother of Veronica, his ex-girlfriend from his university days, which is strange since he only met her mother once, decades ago. It starts Tony thinking about his school and university days, thinking about the past, about memory and perception. He had a close group of friends at school – Adrian, Colin and Alex. Adrian was a more recent addition to the group – serious and extremely smart. The bequest brings Veronica back into his life – bringing back to life the memory of their break-up, leading to Tony uncovering truths that had stayed hidden all those years.

Julian Barnes creates a sense of mystery surrounding the events of Tony’s university days. The odd bequest makes Tony rethink everything he thought he knew about that time. Every action, every tiny look remembered by Tony becomes imbued with meaning that he thinks he missed the first time, meaning that was probably was never even there. That’s not to say there aren’t real secrets to be revealed, but essentially The Sense of an Ending is a study of theme – the focus is on the nature of memory, not plot, not necessarily even people. I’m normally drawn to the plot of a book; I love a good story, so originally I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in reading it. But having read a couple other Man Booker shortlisted books from the same year (Snowdrops and The Sisters Brothers) I was curious to see what beat them – The Sense of an Ending was the winner of the 2011 prize.

I loved Barnes’ style of writing – clean, honest, insightful, with dashes of humour. His writing has a formal, rather English sensibility. In keeping with that vibe the characters are fairly uptight and stuffy – private school history lessons, discussions of poetry, Veronica pretentiously judging Tony by what books and records he owns. But don’t let the idea of affected English university students put you off; Barnes slyly mocks Veronica’s haughtiness and Tony’s boyish panic at being found to be intellectually wanting. The line ‘But wasn’t this the Sixties? Yes, but only for some people, only in certain parts of the country.’ struck me as I was reading The Sense of an Ending, it really says everything about the characters’ perspectives and the tone of the novel – that fight between heady freedom and traditionalism.

Barnes is fascinating and astute as he writes about how in capturing the past in memory it becomes mutable, that the truth of the past is often lost to us because of the distortion of memory. He ruminates on responsibility, morality, nostalgia, and remorse (a step beyond mere guilt, when it’s too late to make amends according to Barnes’ definition). There’s a pervasive sense of melancholy, the melancholy of old age. The final realisation that your life is what it has been, when there’s no more future to imagine. It all sounds very bleak but for Tony it takes the form of philosophical musings rather than a gut-wrenching realisation.

I found Veronica extremely exasperating. She was at university, she’s worse as a middle-aged woman. I fail to see why Tony was ever attracted to her. Though I can’t imagine Barnes meant her to be anything but. But personality aside, I found Veronica exasperating because of her role in the events of the novel. The plot of The Sense of an Ending relies heavily on misunderstandings, incorrectly recalling fragments of memory, assumptions, cryptic conversations that begin explanations but only lead to more false assumptions. If Veronica would have just sat down with Tony and explained everything properly then there would have been no mystery. I guess things aren’t that simple in real life either. People lie and keep secrets all the time but I just felt like Veronica was obfuscating for no reason. Her stubborn refusal to explain (‘You still don’t get it. You never did, and you never will. So stop even trying.’) just serves to keep the story going, keeping the reader guessing, which, in turn, serves to further elucidate Barnes’ thesis on memory.

Also, for those who’ve read it – I understand why Tony feels guilty about the letter he wrote to Adrian, it was scathing and cruel, but for Adrian to blame him at all for what happened next seems ludicrous. Guilt works in mysterious, illogical ways but that Tony would accept any of that blame is maddening.

I’m confident that The Sense of an Ending is a great book, I’m just not so confident that I loved it. In some respects I feel confident recommending it, it’s definitely high quality writing, but I can’t seem to maintain my enthusiasm for it. I guess it comes down to the mystery of personal preference. I am enthusiastic about Barnes though, reading The Sense of an Ending has made me want to read something else of his.