‘The Sense of an Ending’ by Julian Barnes

When Santa very kindly brought me a Kindle for Christmas I knew immediately that this would be the book I would download first.  A number of my friends had spoken about it, waiting for me to read it so that we could discuss it, and then it won the Booker Prize from a much criticised short list, but I had been waiting for the paperback to appear…..

I’d heard bits of it on Book at Bedtime on Radio 4 so I knew to expect the rather laconic, laid back tone of a rather dull man looking back over the most puzzling or interesting thing that had happened in his life.  The impatience of friends to talk about it made me suspect that there were layers of ambiguity in the plot which begged for discussion and speculation.

I also spent a little time scanning the multitude of reviews on the amazon site.  Clearly this is a book that has polarised opinions; some love it, others simply ‘don’t get it’, to quote Veronica in the book.  I suspect it is that one either likes the rather cool style and the lack of clear resolution, or one doesn’t.

The novel is short and told in the first person by Tony, now retired, who looks back on certain events in his life.  The first of the three sections focuses on the friendship of three and then, when Adrian arrives at the school, four school friends; pretentious, believing themselves destined for great things, they debate the nature of history both amongst themselves and in class.

In the second, the friends disperse to different universities and Tony begins what is an unsatisfactory relationship, for him, with Veronica culminating in an awkward weekend spent at Veronica’s parents’ home.  When they subsequently split up Tony is appalled to receive a letter from Adrian telling him that Adrian and Veronica were going out.

Many years later, after he has been married and divorced, become a father and grandfather and retired from his job, Tony receives a letter from a solicitor informing him of a bequest from Veronica’s mother.

It is at this point that we realise that Tony may not be as reliable a narrator in his straightforward ordinariness would have us believe.

This, and the subsequently unleashed events, forces Tony to reconsider his telling of his own story.  Has he been entirely honest with himself or us?  Has he fully appreciated the impact his past actions had on the people around him?  The more he thinks about it, the more details he recalls; details which throw in the potential for a very different interpretation of the events in the story he is telling.

There is a twist at the very end which you may or may not anticipate, but it did make me go back and think about all the little clues which had been scattered through the narrative until then, but there remain unanswered questions, and huge uncertainty about some of the things which neither Tony nor I are ever going to ‘get’.  Clearly, however, he was much crueller and significantly less empathetic than he thought he was.

I found it a very easy book to read, and finished it very quickly; I’m not sure how much of it I will retain, perhaps the contemplation of what unreliable narrators of our own lives we all are, how we work on and embellish those stories of ourselves, from our own point of view, and how they probably become less and less recognisable to others who were there at the time with us.

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