Booker Books: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

This year, for reasons not entirely clear even to myself, I’ve decided to read and review (well, react to) the six books shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize (in order of what we have the most stock of).  I read a varied lot of books, from Maggie O’Farrell to J. R. Ward to China Miéville to Louise Penny.  I’m coming into the shortlisted books entirely blind – as in, I’ve not read any of these authors before, and I don’t know anything about the books either (not even what it says on the back!).  I like to think that this means I have a completely fresh take on all of them.  🙂

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Publisher’s book description:

Tony Webster and his clique first met Adrian Finn at school. Sex-hungry and book-hungry, they would navigate the girl-less sixth form together, trading in affectations, in-jokes, rumour and wit. Maybe Adrian was a little more serious than the others, certainly more intelligent, but they all swore to stay friends for life.

Now Tony is in middle age. He’s had a career and a single marriage, a calm divorce. He’s certainly never tried to hurt anybody. Memory, though, is imperfect. It can always throw up surprises, as a lawyer’s letter is about to prove.

The Sense of an Ending is the story of one man coming to terms with the mutable past. Laced with trademark precision, dexterity and insight, it is the work of one of the world’s most distinguished writers.

Here’s the Guardian‘s review.

My take:

A very typical Booker prize nominee.  The language is easy on the eye and brain, I liked narrator Tony, and there were some good insights into the nature of memory.  I’m not a pensioner* like Tony is, though, and even though I’m of the Dead Poets Society generation, I did not find it easy to connect with both his younger and his older self.  Having said that, I relate to his calm life – and was as bewildered as he was with the way Veronica (Tony’s first girlfriend) treated him, both at the time that they went out together, and forty years later when she shows up in his life again.  She keeps throwing obtuse hints and comments at him about what happened forty years before, and once everything becomes clear, I was still baffled – by her mood swings, by his guilt, by the whole situation, really.  If you are angry at someone, you can’t expect them to atone for their mistake if you never tell them what it is that has made you so angry, right?  Comments like “You never got it, and you never will” serve absolutely no purpose to clear anything up.

In short, the plot let the book down for me.  Purely based on language and musings, I quite enjoyed it, and won’t say no to another Julian Barnes book.  I  liked the design of the book, too – beautiful, haunting cover and black-edged pages.  But overall, I’m afraid that I simply hate fights, and I hate fights where one side holds all the information  – and refuses to share – even more.  I couldn’t feel as guilty as Tony by the end; really, all I thought was “well, Veronica, what did you expect?”  After all, when you are young, you do and say some thoughtless, hurtful things (and have thoughtless, hurtful things done and said to you), and it’s part of growing up to get over them.

This marks the fourth time Julian Barnes has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (the first three times for Flaubert’s Parrot, England, England, and Arthur & George), so on the one hand I really hope he wins it, finally.  On the other hand, I still have five more books to read, and I have a feeling that this slim book might be just short of the mark.

*Yes, Tony is just retired.  Which, in my mind, makes him rather more than “middle-aged”, as the blurb says, and once again proves to me that reading the back of the book is quite often misleading!

Next up:  The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt.

By Sophie.