Book review:The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

“First class degree,first class suicide,”is how Alex and Tony,part of a school and university gang of four sum up their brilliant friend Adrian’s suicide in Julian Barnes’ ‘The Sense of an Ending’.

There is shock,a shrug and a getting on with life as the remaining characters disperse.

Tony the protagonist, the one most connected to Adrian because they shared a girlfriend Veronica, meanders through a life in which nothing much happens.

“We bought a small house with a large mortgage: I commuted up to London everyday” says Tony.He has an amicable divorce,a comfortable retirement,and a reasonably amicable daughter who pops in occasionally to see him.

But a letter arrives,much in the manner of classic British fiction, and takes us elegantly into part two of the book.

There is a will and as the plot unspools, the present changes and the people who inhabit it change.The realization that ‘the past is mutable’ shakes the foundations of Tony’s carefully nurtured self image and world view.

In a cockier world where everything seemed “philosophically self evident”,truth had hard defined edges,certainty was what you built your beliefs on.In a post retirement world the shades Tony discovers will never let him rest.

‘The Sense of an Ending’ won the 2011 Booker, long overdue for a much nominated Barnes.

This is his scaled down but superbly crafted version of ‘Atonement’ (Ian McEwan) or ‘Brideshead revisited’(Evelyn Waugh).There is a secret, there is guilt, and there is a past that re-presents itself with more complete facts.

Some of his old themes are revisited. We still see a triangle –a favourite Barnes staple, shades of Oliver,Stuart and Gillian from ‘Talking it over’ but ruminations on love and friendship are coloured by ruminations on old age.

Barnes’supreme talent in defining character with an incident,an observation or a word is in full range.Robson,Veronica’s mother frying an egg, ex wife Margaret, and the dead Adrian are real and palpable even though they do not stay long on the pages.

Veronica and Tony’s meeting after forty years in the middle of the Wobbly bridge that links St Paul’s to Tate modern is pure Barnes.“She had three moles on her neck – did I remember them or not? Each now had a long whisker growing out of it and the light caught the filaments of hair”.

Memory, intimacy, poetry and a little vicious satisfaction in all of two sentences.

(The thing with trying to write about Barnes’ work is that he just says it all so much better himself, it’s much easier to just read the book.)

Much later, Veronica’s “You don’t get it, do you?”,will haunt Tony and the reader long after the book is done. Because we are never going to be sure if life with its shadowy truths will allow itself to be “Got”.

From the very witty and clever ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ and ‘Talking it over’ to the poignant, quietly observed stories of ‘The lemon tree’ and now the less evident truths of life with ‘The sense of an ending’, Barnes continues to amaze me with the depth and power of his words and observation.

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