Book Review: The Sense of An Ending by Julian Barnes

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Reading this novel in one sitting increases its shock value and tremendous heartbreak. The Sense of an Ending (such an awesome title, right?) clarifies the strangeness of the human existence, time, and parallel universes. Characters have opinions, at once definite and written in granite, which shift uncontrollably. Opposites exist in parallels. Reality blurs into fantasy and vice versa. Time means nothing while controlling everything. Memory works and deceives. “Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability.”

Tony, the novel’s protagonist, identified not as himself but as a part of his foursome friend group: Tony, Colin, Alex, and the enigma that is/was Adrian. In the beginning half of the novel, which chronicles Tony’s experiences in secondary school and university, Tony expresses his feeling of waiting for life to begin. Much of this feeling has to do with watching Adrian be so much himself; while Adrian has already found and established his identity, Tony struggles with the concept of identity at all. He dreams of lofty adventures and tragic love affairs without actually doing anything to achieve these. Tony waits for life’s mysteries to come to him: “We knew from our reading that Love involved Suffering and would have happily got in some practice at suffering if there was an implicit, perhaps even logical, promise that love might be on its way. This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature.” Something we all fear, do we not?

The group’s secondary years, full of jokes by Tony and philosophical questioning by Adrian, climaxed at the death of a classmate, whose suicide left the boys confused and somewhat disappointed. The suicide letter read: “Sorry, Mum,” as if the boy had accidentally broken a vase rather than hanged himself. And all for what the four boys deemed as a non-philosophical and boring reason: his girlfriend’s rumored pregnancy. This event, tragic but not really affecting Tony’s life at the moment, would come to be increasingly important as he aged. Barnes’ skill of intertwining memories and moments blows me away- how this death parallels that of another is startling and makes the ending of the book both ironic and eye-opening.

When Tony is at University, he loses contact with his friends and meets Veronica, his first serious girlfriend, one who he questions whether or not he loved throughout the entire novel. He and Veronica end due to incompatibility, and here Barnes gives readers an incredibly beautiful and nostalgic passage: “I met Annie then. We became lovers easily and quickly. I couldn’t believe my luck. Nor could I believe how simple it was: to be friends and companions, to laugh and drink and smoke together, to see a bit of the world side by side- and then to separate without blame. She is not a part of this story, but she was a part of my story.” Perhaps this passage stands out to me because of my current romantic situation and the similarities between the two. How strange it is, the people that come in and out of our lives, seeming to be for no reason but to hurt or to grieve over… Even stranger when we realize how necessary they were. How much they benefit our stories.

Adrian begins dating Veronica, and although Tony tells the readers that he gave a small smart-ass quip about them being together but otherwise not caring, the novel reveals later that Tony’s memory has forgotten how cruel he really was to the two of them. Shortly afterward, Adrian commits suicide. He leaves a note for the coroner, a very philosophical explanation for his act, explaining that life is a gift bestowed upon us all, and for him it was unwanted. His act gave that gift back. The novel makes it a point to compare this suicide, crafted and reasonable and philosophical, to Rob’s suicide in secondary school: unplanned, hasty, stupid. The novel jumps forward to Tony’s later aged years, after his divorce and his daughter’s marriage. Here we see Tony not as the youthful spirit who longed for big adventure but as the old man who has settled for comfort. “I remember a period in late adolescence when my mind would make itself drunk with images of adventurousness. This is how it will be when I grow up. I shall go there, do this, discover that. Love her, and then her, and then her. I shall live as people in novels live and have lived. But time… how time first grounds us and then confounds us. We imagined we were being responsible but we were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding. Time… give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical.”

But Tony becomes acquainted again with the energetic self he thought he’d forgotten when Veronica’s mother, someone he’d met only briefly, dies and leaves Tony Adrian’s diary in her will. Odd, Tony thinks, that the mother has the diary rather than Veronica (for Veronica and Adrian were still together when Adrian died). He reaches out to Veronica for the diary and receives a short, muted reply for which he cannot accept. He keeps pushing, desiring some kind of reunion with Veronica for unknown reasons. His ex-wife, whom he talks to regularly and is great friends with, suggests that he is perhaps still in love with Veronica. But, Tony thinks, I was never in love with her in the first place. “We live with such easy assumptions.” Perhaps he’d always been in love with her. Perhaps it’d hurt badly when she and Adrian got together. Perhaps he’d written more than just one rude joke about the two of them.

He realizes the following about his relationship with Veronica: “we sat on a blanket on a ramp riverside holding hands: she had brought a flask of hot chocolate. Innocent days. Moonlight caught the breaking waves as it approached. Alone, she and I talked about how impossible things sometimes happened.” “How attracted to one another we had been: how light she felt on my lap; how exciting it always was.” Memories he hadn’t even known he had, experiences he forgot he’d experienced. He thought Veronica had been a bore, a painful first girlfriend but nothing more. And now, late in life, he remembers: “she had danced.”

Veronica takes Tony to see a man who lives in an assisted living facility, a man Tony mistakes to be Veronica and Adrian’s son. And this is the crux of the novel, the main theme Barnes illustrates: just when you think you know the truth, just when you think you’ve mastered your memories and know your experiences, you realize you know nothing. The child was Adrian and Veronica’s mother’s. The shame of that pregnancy drove Adrian to suicide, a death he painted prettier by a written letter fluffed through with philosophy. But underneath all that he had done just what Rob had done in secondary school. Parallels. All the way.

“I’ve been turning over in my mind the question of nostalgia, and whether I suffer from it. If nostalgia means the powerful recollection of strong emotions- and a regret that such feelings are no longer present in our lives- then I plead guilty. And if we’re talking about strong feelings that will never come again, I suppose it’s possible to be nostalgic about remembered pain as well as remembered pleasure. What possible evolutionary purpose could nostalgia serve?”

Tony asks a question that has become so interesting to my own life. I ponder it all the time: why nostalgia? Why do I feel it so powerfully? Sometimes more than any current emotion? And is that nostalgia accurate, or has my memory deceived me (as it has deceived Tony)? “What did I know of life? I, who had lived so carefully? Who had neither won nor lost, but just let life happen to him? Who avoided being hurt and called it a capacity for survival? For whom ecstasy and despair soon became just words once read in a novel?” How disruptive it is to realize your life has not been as comfortable and harmless as you have hoped. To take responsibility for the pain you’ve caused and the confusion you never faced.

“You get towards the end of life- not life itself, but the end of any likelihood of change. You’re allowed a long moment of pause, time enough to ask the question: what else have I done wrong? I thought of a young woman dancing, for once in her life. I thought of what I couldn’t know or understand now, of all that couldn’t ever be understood. There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond that, there is unrest. There is great unrest.”

Great unrest, indeed.

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