176 pages, Knopf
Review by Bill Kirton
Yes, The Sense of an Ending is this year’s winner of the Man Booker prize. And yes, usually the books on the short list rarely even make the bottom of my to-be-read list (thanks to some prolonged hours of tedium spent trying to care about the people in the pages of past winners). But this is by Julian Barnes. So far he’s never let me down, and this is as thought-provoking, entertaining, absorbing and admirable as the rest of his output.
The judges this year suggested that they’d chosen books for their readability, which rather implies a spurious conflict between ‘readable’ and ‘literary’. This novella is certainly readable but it also leaves you with a feeling of satisfaction that you’ve witnessed the solving of a mystery which we all confront – how to make sense of and give meaning to who we are and what we do and have done. Or rather, it shows you the process at work in its narrator and the immense difficulty (impossibility?) of achieving such a solution.
Its basics are simple enough. The narrator describes some key incidents, friendships and relationships in his younger days then quickly jumps over his middle years to a present in which he recalls those incidents and tries to make sense of them. I won’t go into details for fear of spoiling the story, but they involve some very clever parallels and mirrorings of events which conspire to cloud his interpretations of what happened.
Barnes writes that ‘Our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life’ and, as we know and he knows, narrators are often unreliable. In a way, memories are fictions and yet we use them to compile our lives. In fact, he actually says that he’s not sure whether, in the present, he’s ascribing motives and understanding to past events and actions, or remembering the motives and understanding he ascribed to them at the time.
And I’m aware that my efforts to condense his words are clumsy and give the wrong impression of the reading experience. We care about the narrator, his awkwardnesses, his flaws, his honesty, his flashes of humour. We’re drawn by him into the enigmas of what became of his ex girl friend and best friend, he shares his changing awareness with us, and he delays until the last pages the revelation that alters everything he’s previously believed. And it’s all written in an easy, accessible style, using the common little everyday details that give a narrative its individual authenticity. In a quote Barnes (but not his narrator) remembers from Madame Bovary, it’s ‘the littleness of life that art exaggerates’.
He deals in huge concepts but presents them in ways that leave us room to open them for ourselves. ‘Life’ he writes, ‘isn’t just addition and subtraction. There’s also the accumulation, the multiplication, of loss, of failure.’ And as the narrator tries to construct his story, understand and interpret his memories, give them all the necessary retrospective meanings, those meanings elude him, shift and change. An important theme/image is that of the Severn Bore – a wave that, in certain tidal conditions, rushes up the
Severn river the wrong way, i.e. upstream. We assume our lives flow meaningfully along a timeline, shaped by who we are, where we live, the prevailing culture and customs, but it just needs one false assumption to undermine those assumptions with catastrophic consequences.
And the other main theme is much more directly connected to the story’s events, that of the Freudian linking of Eros and Thanatos – sexual love and death. It’s a familiar theme, especially in Romantic literature, but Barnes’ treatment of it is very subtle. It would also be a spoiler if I expanded on it, so I’ll just say that it’s at the centre of the whole narrative.
So does the ‘Ending’ of the title refer to the ending of life, an affair, a friendship, a passage of time? And which meaning of ‘Sense’ is the relevant one? The possible enigmas it offers sum up the style and the pleasure of the book. It’s an account of one person’s attempt to make sense of things that have happened as he moves through thoughts and memories that keep both changing shape and slipping out of reach. But it’s written with clarity, humour, compassion and a real understanding of how we ‘accumulate’ our lives.