Book Reviews
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Sometimes, you just don’t get it – The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending is narrated by Tony Webster, a man who has been more or less successful: a steady career, an easy retirement, a friendly marriage followed by a friendlier divorce, an unproblematic daughter. In other words, life is not bothersome for Tony until he receives a letter from a solicitor stating that Adrian Finn, a friend from 40 years ago, left him a diary through the will of Sarah, the mother of his ex-girlfriend from 40 years ago, Veronica. This letter makes Tony start scrutinizing what he thinks his past is and discovering what his life really is.

The novel begins with a list of things that Tony remembers, and after going through each item, he cautiously says, as if to defend himself from his flawed remembrance, which is something that is often presented, that what you end up remembering is not always what you have seen. Memories, in this novel, cannot be trusted. Memories are either willfully forgotten or confused between imagination and reality. They deviate from what really happened and they can even be totally opposite from the truth. The veracity of Tony’s memories is often challenged that the reader, at some point, will begin to see this novel as a giant puzzle where the pieces hardly fit each other.

Tony is at great unrest, like his classmate’s description of Henry VIII’s reign and like the way his story ends. Why muddle through all these if he’s at ease, if he found closure with things past? And why make a conscious selection of memories in the first place? After reading the book in one sitting as the dust jacket demanded and after rereading it a couple of times, I feel that I share his memories, owing to the novel’s first-person point of view. Reading the novel is like having a friend sleep over at your place, lying on the bed in the dark, telling random stories and confessions, and you, as the reader, urging the other to keep going and to reexamine things in retrospect.

How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but–mainly–to ourselves.

[Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does: otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities; but that’s something different, more like decoration. Perhaps character resembles intelligence, except that character peaks a little later: between twenty and thirty, say. And after that, we’re just stuck with what we’ve got. We’re on our own. If so, that would explain a lot of lives, wouldn’t it? And also–if this isn’t too grand a word–our tragedy.]

Because this book deals heavily with the unreliability and faulty nature of memory, it is filled with corroboration, as if this were enough to come up with an ideal version of truth. We only have Tony’s story to read, but the small versions from Adrian, Veronica, and other characters provided to us put Tony’s narration in a state of doubt. The story sounds sincere enough but the parts that would make it credible are forgotten and left out by Tony, therefore making a puzzle out of himself.

Aside from memory, it also deals with meditations on history and its nuisances, on growing old, on sinking into an ordinary life, on regretting the things you did that you forgot you did, on the unwavering force of things left undone, of man’s instinct for self-preservation. Perhaps the last item is the point of all the forgetting, but is it also the point of living at least two-thirds of your life?

[I certainly believe we all suffer damage, one way or another. How could we not,except in a world of perfect parents, siblings, neighbours, companions? And then there is the question on which so much depends, of how we react to the damage: whether we admit it or repress it,and how this affects our dealings with others.Some admit the damage, and try to mitigate it;some spend their lives trying to help others who are damaged; and there are those whose main concern is to avoid further damage to themselves, at whatever cost. And those are the ones who are ruthless, and the ones to be careful of.]

Tony has accused others as damaged people, but isn’t he just as damaged as the others? He fears these damaged people who, according to him, avoid inflicting further damage to themselves, and yet, he has become a perfect replica of them. He thinks he is being in touch with his senses when the fact is he has become another insensitive man who has lashed at people who were once close to him with his vitriolic words. He would not realize this because he can only figure out the picture that he has created inside his head and he would not get out of it.

The novel has been praised, or criticized, for its readability. It is true that one can effortlessly breeze through the text. It appears to be a simplistic two-part memoir: the first part concerned with Tony’s schooling where he met Adrian and Veronica, and the second part concerned with shifting narratives that weave back and forth to the present and the past. One may pick any page at random and most likely find something that is worth quoting.

[History isn’t the lies of the victors, as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt; I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious or defeated.]

But reading isn’t only concerned with the text. Digging deeper is another factor. A book that can be finished in one sitting without really getting it is not a readable book. One is even tempted to start all over after reading the last sentence of this book. Readers may gather and discuss what really happened, but they will never be able to pin things down. They will agree, but the possibility of disagreement is higher. This irresolvability adds another constraint to the understanding of the book, and perhaps its readability is the greatest irony that it has to present.

So what is the sense of an ending? It is how the novel ended. It is what we have when we cannot undo certain things. We only have a sense of an ending when something in our lives has been buried too deep that we are fooled to believe that it really has ended.

Dates Read: April 12, 2013

No. of Pages: 150

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars



  1. Hi, Angus.

    In my case, this is something that begs to be reread. When I read it the first time, I thought, “What the hell was that about?” I completely missed the sense of the ending!


    • Oh yes, I think I read this 3-4 times (the rereads are on audio). This is one of the books that I won’t get tired of rereading. And I read somewhere that I shouldn’t read this in my 20s. Hmm.


  2. I love your take on this book. I read it once, came up to the ending, and was like huh, and I read it again. Still not entirely sure I understood what happened.

    But, it’s a lovely book with some really lovely writing and I enjoyed it thoroughly.


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