The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

On the shortlist for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes is a short, beautifully written and entertaining read that explores themes of memory, history, love and death.

Even the busiest reader will usually be able to find time for a novel of about 100 pages and The Sense of An Ending by Julian Barnes might be just the title to fit the bill. It is short but it also provides plenty to discuss.

Every book club goes through periods of exhaustion. Short fiction can be a great pick me up when members are struggling to get through more substantial reading material.  Shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, The Sense of an Ending reads a little like a psychological thriller challenging the reader to work out why, exactly, Tony, the narrator, has been left money and a diary by his ex-wife’s mother. Tony, we are led to believe ‘doesn’t get it’ and so, particularly in the second chapter, we must look for clues to try and work out what exactly Tony is missing as he seeks to make sense of the pieces of information he remembers or otherwise uncovers.

I might not have picked up The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes if it had not been on the 2011 Man Booker long list but I am glad that I did. It is a well-written and entertaining read that leaves the reader with a lot to think about. I’m also glad that I read it immediately after I had finished Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child because,  the two novels although quite different share some key common themes:

  • the fallacies of memory,
  • the importance of documentation, and
  • sex and death.

The fallacies of memory

“I know this much: that there is objective time, but also subjective time, the kind you wear on the inside of your wrist, next to where the pulse lies. And this personal time, which is the true time, is measured in your relationship to memory.”

But if personal time is true time, what of memory? Because Barnes shows us that memory changes and shifts. “It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.” As in The Stranger’s Child, different pasts and the unreliability of memory is the central theme in The Sense of an Ending. The schoolboy, Adrian Finn, sums it up beautifully when he says: “That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian to understand the version that is being put in front of us.” Point of view is important as is understanding the motives of the narrator and working out to what extent the information available to the narrator can be relied on by the reader.

Documentation and history

Documentation, too, is important because it plays such a critical role in definining our understanding of history. In The Stranger’s Child,  the biography/memoir thread that is particularly strong later in the novel never lets us forget how subjective even supposedly objective writing can be, particularly where it depends on the fallible memories of its primary sources .

In The Sense of an Ending, particularly in the first chapter where the main characters are at school, there is much discussion of the reliability of history and of the relationship between documentation, memory and history:  “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation”.

Sex and Death

Julian Barnes
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Eros and Thanatos – love and death – is the third theme common to both the Hollinghurst and Barnes novels listed for the 2011 Man Booker prize. And in both, the love aspect derives from early life – schooldays in the Barnes novel, university in the Hollinghurst – although this theme is drawn out quite differently in each novel. The Sense of an Ending is more preoccupied with death – from the suicide of the schoolboy, Robson, through to the the sense of impending death as Tony ages and contemplates the end of his own life.

Easily read in a couple of hours, The Sense of an Ending is published by Jonathan Cape and is available for the Kindle.