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Review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending is about a middle aged man reflecting on his early life and then his early relationships.  It reminded me very much of McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, about the troubles in a young couple’s marriage. Both are set partly in an earlier age, with different values, which have rubbed off on the protagonists and end up partially setting the courses of their lives and actions.

In The Sense of an Ending, we see our protagonist, Tony Webster, reflecting on his school days, and the arrival of a remarkable and serious young man, Adrian Finn, in the midst of his “crowd” at school.  This early part of the book is very clearly set out and remembered, mirroring the way in which we do tend experience life sharply, freshly and clearly as children and teenagers.

Tony and his crowd live an outwardly privileged life, at a school which puts them amongst the intellectual elite. Similarly, they all go on to good Universities, which was far less common in those days, fall in love, and grow up. But Tony cannot forget his first girlfriend, Veronica, who in the end left him for Adrian. He harbours resentment towards the both of them and eventually, as an adult, is led to revisit this relationship.

I really enjoyed the nostalgic flavour of this novel, by which I mean that great care was taken to drawing the detail of the past, the way people and attitudes were, and the way in which young people are different in attitude from older people.

The plot includes an element of mystery and is cleverly executed; an issue when writing a book set over a long period of time is keeping characters consistent and keeping them motivated so that they still ring true as the multi layered individuals that we become as we develop over and over when things happen to us.   I think this was achieved by having neither Tony nor Veronica totally capture our sympathies.  If Tony is childishly self-centred and incurious of any mystery other than his own, then Veronica is equally obstinately self-pitying and dramatising.  This combination works well enough to drive the plot along and each character is adequately interesting to keep us reading.  If, at any point, either of these two had behaved with the earthly pragmatism of Tony’s ex-wife Margaret, things would not have turned out the way they did.

I thought this book was an even handed portrait of two flawed characters.  In fact, many of the characters were flawed! It seemed that society the education system that the boys went through, encouraging thought but not emotional sensibility, contributed to the brooding atmosphere and Tony’s overthinking of, to the point of almost obsession over, the situation.

The ending was thought provoking, although not the total knock out that I’d been expecting, from what I’d read.  But beautifully thought out and put together.  Something, I rather suspect, that the fictional establishment from this story would have approved of.

 

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10 Comments

  1. My book club read this and there was some disagreement about what exactly happened at the end. But I thought it was a good read and a great book to discuss!

    • I’m sure there is lots to discuss with such interesting characters and setting.

      There was an odd Amazon review/comment on Veronica’s passive aggressiveness (the reviewer gave the book two stars because he didn’t like Veronica and thought her behaviour was annoying!) I

  2. I absolutely loved this book. I read it the first time and thought – hey, what’s all the fuss about – and then we read it for our book group. I don’t often read a book twice but I would thoroughly recommend you do – the ending is brought into sharp focus and there are several pointers and crucial moments throughout the story that were missed on my first reading. I usually pass books on once I’ve finished with them, only keeping a few which have had an impact one way or another. This one has definitely earned its place on my small shelf.

  3. It’s always interesting how people react to books with characters that they don’t necessarily like. I feel like there are 2 distinct reactions: those that can’t relate to the book at all because they didn’t like the characters and those that appreciate the complexity of characters that they can’t always understand.

    This has been on my list for a long time – might be time to renew efforts to track it down.

  4. the book is pretty thin and yet it has a smoothly flowing,engrossing and intellectually demanding story which leaves you with a feeling to get back to it as soon as you finish the book

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