‘“What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed”’ – that’s the fundamental idea informing Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Prize winning work The Sense of an Ending. In one sense, the whole text is a meditation on memory and its shortcomings. Memories are subjective, they get remoulded and repurposed over time, Barnes contends.
I spent a lot of time trying to summarise the plot in a short and concise manner, but really struggled – apologies for the elongated synopsis below. The text is divided into two sections (1 & 2) and told from the (unreliable) first-person perspective of Tony Webster. In the first section, Tony recounts his formative years. We are introduced to his friends (Colin, Alex and most importantly, Adrian) and their shared years at secondary school, as well as Veronica, his girlfriend at the University of Bristol, whose family house he visits during a summer break. After breaking up with Veronica, Tony soon finds out that she has become romantically interested with his school friend, Adrian. He sends an angry letter to her and breaks contact. The section ends with Tony returning home from travelling in America after university, where he finds out that Adrian has committed suicide. In the second section Tony, now in old age, is prompted to look back into his past and re-examine his imperfect memories.
Although I found the pacing of the novel quite slow at times in the second section, the climax was absorbing and tense. The final revelations force the reader to reconsider Tony’s narrative in a whole new light, become a literary detective and piece together the various clues amongst the faded memories. I’m trying to comment without revealing any major spoilers, but a quote from a review by The iIndependent captures the mood well: ‘the concluding scenes grip like a thriller – a whodunnit of memory and morality’. It is to Barnes credit that we initially read Tony as a genuine, average – if not emotional protagonist, with Veronica the unstable and calculating antithesis. But memories are subjective, and once the repressed past surfaces, we draw closer to the causes of Adrian’s suicide and Veronica’s anxieties – Tony has a part to play in both.
Sexuality is another major theme in the novel. Tony describes his clique of friends as ‘sex-hungry’, and the metaphor of the ‘holding-pen’, from which they are ‘waiting to be released’, denotes their desire for sexual, as well as social, liberation. Throughout the first section, Tony’s disdain towards Veronica is centred around her rejection of sex. Later, it is implied that Sarah’s (Veronica’s mother) sexual transgressions have stunted her daughter’s psychological growth. Issues in the private, sexual sphere repeatedly spill out into the public world and cause great pain, affecting both filial and romantic relationships.
The Sense of an Ending is dramatically different in tone, style and register to England, England, the only other Barnes novel I’ve read – this attests to authorial scope and imagination. The real achievement of The Sense of an Ending is that it offers no concrete ending. Upon completion, it demands to be re-read and analysed further. This process mimics the text’s plot, in which Tony must confront and scrutinise his murky past from a new perspective, peeling away the layers of artificiality he has constructed in his head.