English novelist Julian Barnes has written a slip of a new book, a mere 150-pages populated by a small handful of characters. But his novella, The Sense of an Ending, punches well above its size, and has deservedly been longlisted for the Booker Prize. With brevity and restraint, Barnes addresses some of life’s most significant questions: Can you trust your memories? Have you intentionally forgotten parts of your own past? What will you regret?
The story is narrated by Tony Webster, a man in his sixties looking back on his rather ordinary life. While he is stoic about his lot, he says: ‘I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and succeeded – and how pitiful that was.’ Tony married, had a daughter, divorced, worked as an arts administrator and then retired. ‘And,’ he says, ‘ that’s a life, isn’t it?’ He needn’t have worried too much. Life soon does bother Tony Webster, and offers him an intriguing mystery to solve.
The first part of the story is set in England in the 1960s, though it may as well have been the 1950s since, as Tony explains, it was the Swinging Sixties ‘only for some people, only in certain parts of the country.’ But within Tony’s small group of school friends there is certainly drama and change, amplified when they welcome into their midst a smart, serious boy called Adrian Finn. Tony is in awe of Adrian and declares they will be friends forever.
However, he does not anticipate that Adrian will take up with his rather poisonous ex-girlfriend Veronica Ford while they are all at university, albeit different universities. Tony is furious about this development and, feeling bewildered and betrayed, cuts off contact with the pair. A few months later, Adrian commits suicide. This string of events will affect Tony for the rest of his life.
In the second part of the book, Tony’s quiet retirement years are rocked when he is bequeathed Adrian’s diary by Veronica’s mother. He’s shocked to learn the diary had, in fact, been left to him in Adrian’s suicide note decades ago but Veronica had chosen not to pass it on. Why, we wonder, is the diary with Veronica’s mother? And why has she left it to Tony now? Tony realises Adrian had a secret, one that may have driven him to his death, and he becomes fixated on learning what it was. He begins by trawling through his own memories for clues about what Adrian may have written, unsettling himself and us in the process.
Of course, secrets have a way of making themselves known one way or another. And when we do eventually learn Adrian’s dark story we have to re-evaluate all of the characters in the book.
However suspenseful the story is, though, at its core is a profound rumination about memory, perspective, and the fictions we craft out of our own lives.
Julian Barnes has written ten other novels, three collections of short stories, and a substantial amount of nonfiction and journalism. This year he won the David Cohen Prize for Literature. The Sense of an Ending is a slim volume, and perhaps has a slim chance of winning the Booker Prize. But it’s a remarkable book, the work of a strong and assured writer. It may not warm your heart but it might make you wonder about your own past and memories. For that alone, it’s worth reading.