Literary Fiction

The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

8 June 2020
The Sense of an Ending Book Cover The Sense of an Ending
Julian Barnes
General fiction
Random House

Includes poems of thwarted love and disappointment, of raw desire, of the stalking beast, 'eye-teeth/and muzzle/coated with blood'; poems that recognise 'we have too much to gain from the gods, and this is why/they fail to love us'; poems that tell of an obsessive lover coming to grief in a sequence that echoes the old murder ballads


Julian Barnes’ writing in this short novel speaks loudly in an often quiet reflective allegory of memory and loss. Overtly philosophical, Tony Webster, tells of his youth as a schoolboy, with two old friends Alex and Colin, and the new kid, Adrian Finn. How their ideological sense of the world met with affectations as they sought to impress each other and teachers on various subjects, although always acceding to Adrian’s intelligent and apparent self-awareness. Nearing the end of school it had a sense of being “kept in a holding pen waiting to be released”, which suggests an expectation of passion, action and success in the future. As an older man to reflect that

“Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

A sad reflection that life isn’t a simple calculation of additions and subtractions but now and again a multiplication of loss. Tony Webster is a complex character, seen through one lens as he progresses through life and a different one looking back over time after he receives a bequeathed gift from an old girlfriend’s mother.

Tony has drifted through his career, marriage, fatherhood, amicable divorce with Margaret, and tedious retirement, until Veronica’s mother sent him £500 in a will and the promise of Adrian’s diary. Veronica leaving Tony for Adrian left pain and deep resentment, causing him to write a letter to them both. A letter that now returned forty years later, does not align with his memory of its contents and which reads cruel and spiteful. In The Sense of an Ending, memory is the precarious matter to be traded between fact and fiction, how time changes memory and how true time is measured in your relationship to memory. When new memories came flooding back “it was as if for that moment, time had been placed in reverse. As if, for that moment, the river ran upstream.”. Maybe our personalised memories of events and moments are all that really matter.

Barnes creates a wonderful balance between empathy and frustration in watching a character wrestle with their decisions and behaviour when discarded as a love interest. Searching for answers when the smart thing to do is avoid contact and walk away. Failure to do so only has one outcome, more frustration, disappointment and unrest. Having slipped again and exposed the neediness and truths that were better ignored, cannot be retracted. In personal relationships do answers ever really help?

The self-pitying doleful nature of Tony Webster is not a character easily liked and while his outlook on life is bleak there is a hope that he can find acceptance or resolution in the answers he seeks. There is a hope that he can enjoy what remains of his life rather than the nagging ineptitude of his life’s accumulation. For a new beginning, there needs to be a sense of an ending.

I enjoyed this book and as a second read, I appreciated more the mastery of prose Julian Barnes displays. A deserved winner of a literature prize – The Man Booker prize in 2011. I would rate the book 4.5 stars and I would highly recommend it.

Peter Donnelly

Founder of The Reading Desk, supporting readers, authors, publishers and book industry. Top Reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads, and NetGalley

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