“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion wrote in her great essay, “The White Album.” She then demolished her aphorism’s smug certainties by revealing how many tales—especially those from her own memory—were false.
A similar warping curls the pages in “The Sense of an Ending,” Julian Barnes’ ferocious new novel, winner of the 2011 Booker Prize. In a time when some of our finest novelists have turned to the novelette length—Philip Roth, Ian McEwan—Barnes outshines them all. This is a book for the ages.
Like the great novellas of Thomas Mann and Flannery O’Connor, this book manipulates. It wheedles and churns for our affection. It sounds the right notes. But then, slowly, it dawns on the reader that its teller is not as in control of the facts as he first appears.
To be fair, Tony Webster, its narrator, signals this may be so on the first page. A cluster of images, so disparate as to be nonsensical, begin his tale. “We live in time,” Tony then says, “it holds us and moulds us, but I’ve never felt I understood it very well.”
It speaks well to Barnes’ creation of Tony’s voice that while he telegraphs such things at the story’s inception, we forget. The tale of Tony’s friendship with three other boys, circa the 1960s, has a staunch English appeal. “We were book hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic,” Tony says, “anarchistic.”
Among the characters, the temporary equalizer of adolescence burns off and innate and social hierarchies assert themselves. Adrian Finn, the brightest, the one whom the boys want most desperately to please, goes to Cambridge; another to Sussex; a third into his father’s business.
Tony, meanwhile, enters college and launches into a relationship with a woman from a slightly fancier background. Barnes beautifully depicts how this discrepancy is eclipsed by the erotic tension of young love. The stop-start-stops; the bargaining. And then suddenly the relationship fizzles.
When Tony discovers Adrian has begun dating his ex-girlfriend, conspiracy theories grip him, and he dashes off a letter he regrets for the rest of his life. A letter of such unrepentant nastiness, it immediately causes the reader to recast the first half of the book.
Later, in midlife, Tony comes into possession of this letter, and begins pulling the strings of memory’s yarn ball to get to what he hopes will be a kernel of truth. “The Sense of an Ending,” to its credit, never lets him get there. One tug always reveals another layer. It is a chilling and potent moment the instant one realizes that Tony, in spite of having lived it, is not an expert in his own life.
His agitations for closure progress from the plangent to the comical to the downright rude, giving this short, unlikely novel the even unlikelier distinction of being a page-turner. You arrive at its conclusion breathless and befuddled, duped into the idea that a life’s conclusion brings some kind of wisdom. Not always.
Apparently sometimes there are simply just more questions. (John Freeman)
“The Sense of an Ending”
By Julian Barnes
Knopf, 163 pages, $24