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‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.’
The Sense of an Ending is a story about history and memory, regretting and accepting one’s past. In the first half of this two-part tale we meet our narrator, Tony Webster, as a young boy in the 1960s, along with his uptight girlfriend Veronica and his carefree high-school friends, the most precocious of whom is named Adrian Finn. When another boy at school hangs himself, apparently after getting a girl pregnant, the friends debate at length the philosophical difficulties surrounding the young man’s death without realising that it will find echoes in their own future.
The mystery around which The Sense of an Ending revolves gains momentum in part two when Tony receives a lawyer’s letter that brings with it a few surprises and an unexpected bequest. We are now brought forward in time to the moment when Tony and Veronica reconnect as adults, under different and substantially more serious circumstances than in their high school years. It is only in this part of his amicable life that Tony begins to reflect on the path he has taken and becomes aware of the implications of his past actions.
The focus on memory and, more specifically, on the unreliability of one’s recollection of events is the major theme running throughout The Sense of an Ending, which proves both intriguing and thought-provoking. Julian Barnes certainly keeps his readers in suspense until the very end, only filling in the blanks when Tony is able to do so himself. Left in the dark, the reader has no choice but to continue reading in order to reach the climactic revelation in which the story’s loose ends are finally tied up.
However, considering the tension is heightened so skilfully throughout Tony’s lengthy narrative, it must be said that the ending fell short of my expectations. Without giving anything away, I felt as though this was the weakest part of the book, as I had enjoyed exploring the manifold possibilities provoked by its unanswered questions more so than having everything explained to me in a way that left little to the imagination.
That is not to say that The Sense of an Ending is not a book worth reading. Barnes has a true talent for writing and, for the most part, he lived up to his formidable reputation as a literary talent. He has produced a novel full of great characters, which sets a satisfying pace and is delivered in an appropriate and intriguing manner. I can definitely see why it won the prestigious 2011 Man Booker Prize, which was undeniably deserved.