A Review of a Novel by Julian Barnes
The Sense of an Ending
Winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, The Sense of an Ending is a short, haunting novel of remembrance and remorse by the celebrated English writer, Julian Barnes. The first person narrator is Tony Webster, a retired manager, divorced and alone, rather self-absorbed and passive, a man of reduced expectations whose life is suddenly upended when he is willed the diary of a close friend, Adrian, who had committed suicide in his early twenties. Though Adrian came from a rung lower in the middle class than Tony, he was brilliant and charismatic, clearly destined for something great. But while studying philosophy at Cambridge, Adrian had hung himself, leaving behind an existential explanation for having made this choice. Adrian, however, had also stolen away Tony’s enigmatic and manipulative girlfriend, Veronica, not long before his death. Back then, Tony had sent Adrian a bitter epistle cursing the new couple, then Tony had gotten on with his own life–a brief, hippy adventure in America, a cog-in-a machine job back in England, a non-enigmatic wife who eventually leaves him for a restaurant owner, a daughter, and finally single life in a tidy flat, volunteering at the hospital, a glass of wine a night and a week in Spain each winter, just treading water until the final curtain closes. And then, Veronica’s mother–with whom Tony once felt a strange sympathy–dies and inexplicably leaves Tony 500 pounds and Adrian’s diary. The first half of the novel consists of a long flashback of Tony’s youth and his relationship with Adrian and Veronica; the second half involves Tony’s efforts to get his hands on the diary, which Veronica, whom he hasn’t seen in over forty years, doesn’t want to hand over. The narrative pull becomes stronger as Tony undergoes a quest to recover the diary, find out what was going on in Adrian’s mind before his death, and perhaps to even rekindle a flame with Veronica. Smaller mysteries, give way to larger ones, and ultimately to a shattering truth. Though I found some of Tony’s philosophical musings on the nature of life a little tedious, his character comes fully alive and the story itself is deeply compelling.