Wednesday, 8 May 2013

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

This was a book club choice, and it has to be said, one of the few that I've enjoyed recently. It's the first of Barnes' books that I've read, and despite how much I enjoyed it, strangely enough, I find myself uninterested in any of his other novels...

This book is the story of a man and centres around the flexibility and the unreliability of memory. Narrator Tony is forgettable in every way. Late middle age, recently retired and suddenly in the mood to share his story with us. Tony looks back at his school days, his friends his first proper relationship with the difficult and complicated Veronica (and the effect her behaviour had on the impressionable young Tony) and his past and present relationship with his wife- plain speaking, straightforward, they remain on good terms. Tony's glory days were back in school where he showed some promise in his studies. He and his friends did well and were reasonably popular, navigating as a foursome the treacherous school terrain of girls, booze and books. The writing in this first section sort of reminded me of the Secret History which I read very recently and absolutely loved.

After school Tony tells us that he went to college, got a job, got married, go divorced, your usual average life.  He zooms through about 20 years in a paragraph, this really isn't a life story, it's a life's memory.  I think it's the mundaneness of Tony that's so appealing- he's not one to make his life appear more glamorous or exciting than it was. He talks about his gifted school friend Adrien, aloof but brilliant new-kid who killed himself at 18, deciding to "opt out" of a life that had animated him without his consent or approval. Tony spends a great deal of the novel contemplating the philosophy of suicide and comparing his life- a rudderless life that simply happened to him- with Adrien's decision to end his own.

Things start to unravel for Tony when he is inexplicably left something in a will.  He starts to remember things that he thought he'd forgotten, reads things that he forgets he'd ever written and generally starts to wonder if anything happened the way he thought it did.  Barnes' investigation into the nature of memory (and time and history) is what holds everything together, along with his beautiful use of language.  It's not exactly a roaring read, there's very little by way of plot, but it's the slipperyness of our own recollections that matter.  The writing is masterful and just rolls off the page- philosophy, sarcasm, an almost pathetic self-deprecating humour and musings over things that as readers we've all thought about at some point.  A well written book can manage without a great deal of plot, but a plot driven book will collapse under bad writing.

The Sense of an Ending is a concept, rather than a novel, but it's a concept that most people can relate to.  Who hasn't wondered if the way that you remember something is the same as the memory of someone else that was there?  Isn't it weird how the memories that are to you the most vivid and prominent are absolutely forgotten to others that were there at the time?  How can we know that history doesn't work like this too?  Maybe the most famous events in history were just remembered wrongly...

I can see why people wouldn't like it- the lack of plot, the strange soapy twist at the end (I struggled with that- why is Veronica so mad?? Shouldn't she be more mad at Adrien?  After all it was him that erm...did the thing...), the emphasis on being Literary with a capital L, the fact that a book called The Sense of an Ending doesn't really have one...but even taking all this into account, I found myself very much drawn into Tony's memories and it made me think at length about my own.  A person's memories belong to them in an utterly unique and very personal way, and to think about their destruction or irrelevance is quite unsettling.  An incredibly well written, if somewhat meandering novel that is very thought provoking and that uses language in a really effective way.

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