So this is the Booker winner: a slim meditation on the fallibility of memory and the limits to how much one person can know of another. It may or may not have been the best title on the Booker shortlist; it surely wasn’t the best novel that was eligible for this year’s prize, and I doubt it is the pinnacle of Julian Barnes’s fiction – but, taken on its own terms, The Sense of an Ending is a perfectly fine piece of work.
Our narrator is retiree Tony Webster, who spends the book’s first third giving us a potted history of his life as he remembers it, or at least of those parts most relevant to the story at hand. Tony recalls becoming friends with the serious-minded and brilliant Adrian Finn at school, and later falling in love with a girl named Veronica Ford at university. Tony never quite felt at ease with Veronica, felt when he met her family for a brief weekend that he was being judged as inadequate – and it wasn’t too long before Veronica called off the relationship and started seeing Adrian Finn. At the age of 22, Adrian killed himself; why was not clear, but the notes he left suggest that he’d reached his decision through a typically logical thought process.
In the present day, Tony has not had any contact with Veronica or her family for many years, but receives a lawyer’s letter indicating that her mother Sarah has died and bequeathed him a small sum of money, and a document which, Tony learns, is Adrian Finn’s diary. That diary, however, is currently being held by Veronica; Tony sets out to make contact with her and find out what’s in the diary, how Sarah Ford came to have it, and why she might now have given it to him. Whatever answers Tony might imagine those questions to have, the reality of them still takes him by surprise.
As he begins his reflections, Tony observes that what we remember of the past may not be what actually happened, and we see the optimistic certainties of his schooldays give way to the realisation in later life of how little he knows, and concomitant speculation on what might have happened in the gaps:
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. (p. 80)
The present-day Tony certainly does invent pasts for others: when he makes initial contact with Veronica’s brother Jack, Tony imagines the path which the young man he met briefly might have taken to become the person now suggested by his emails. This relatively insignificant speculation becomes something more serious when Tony tries to work out what may have happened between Veronica and Adrian, when the former is so unforthcoming, and the latter forever frozen in time as that brilliant young man. And the truth, of both others’ pasts and Tony’s own, remain slippery to the protagonist.
‘What did I know of life,’ asks Tony, ‘I who had lived so carefully? Who had neither won nor lost, but just let life happen to him?’ (p. 142) Maybe not so much about other people’s lives, given everything he learns; but Tony certainly knows something of the shape of life, and how we come to see and understand (or not to understand) it. Furthermore (though he may not realise it), Tony has complexities of his own analogous to those of the people from his past, in that the way he presents himself is not everything we see him to be.
Barnes’s novel is a little too essayistic at times in the way it treats Tony’s ruminations; but, as a whole, The Sense of an Ending embodies its concerns well. I’m pleased that its Booker listing (and subsequent win) brought the book to my attention.