A deserving winner of the Man Booker Prize 2011 – Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is a brilliantly complex novel questioning memory and its fallibility, time, ageing and regret.

The novel is divided into two parts. In part one, Tony, now retired, recounts his “sex-hungry and book-hungry” school days, his friendship with the intelligent and pretentious Adrian Finn, meeting his first girlfriend Veronica’s family and the failure of this relationship. In part two, Tony receives a letter informing him of a mysterious bequest from Veronica’s mother. This letter acts as a catalyst for Tony to question his memories of the past and what they mean for him now.

…heavily laden with the feeling that something is withheld…

The winner

The first section of the novel is slow and measured as we are given a collection of memories with no clue as to their significance. The slow pace is indicative of Tony’s character but is remedied in the second half of the novel. Tony’s short summary of his life after University, where he simply “let life happen to him”, emphasises the importance of these adolescent memories to his later life and gives the reader a hint of what is to come.

The arrival of the letter in the second half picks up the pace of the novel, offering intrigue and mystery. The memories recounted in the first half are now given a clearer significance as the novel continues. The breakdown and questioning of Tony’s recollections shows the falsity and unreliability of memory, how memory is affected by time and age, and the consequent effect on his life. This half of the novel is heavily laden with the feeling that something is withheld tantalisingly out of reach, as the reader, along with Tony, struggles to find a resolution.

…the book stays with you long after you’ve turned the last page.

This feeling does not disappear at the end of the novel. The ending is filled with an ambiguity that leaves the conclusion left open to interpretation and with no sense of completion. We, along with Tony, are given answers to the questions that haunt the novel but we are not given a sense of conclusion, perhaps only a sense of an ending.  As a reader this can be a little frustrating, yet it ensures that the book stays with you long after you’ve turned the last page.

In only 150 pages, Julian Barnes creates a mesmerizing and captivating novel about time and memory. So much information is given in these pages that it requires a re-read to absorb the brilliance of this novel, to strive for understanding and unearth new depths of the story.

Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending is a beautifully and delicately written, compelling and thought-provoking novel well worthy of this year’s Man Booker Prize.

The Sense of an Ending is published by Jonathan Cape and is available for £12.99

4½ Stars

Images courtesy of Julian Barnes


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