Book Review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Book Review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes, is an intricately penned story of one man coming to terms with the mutable past. It is a story about the subjectivity of memory, and how it creates unreliable histories, because...

“what you end up remembering isn't always the same as what you have witnessed.”

Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2011, this 160-page novella is truly a literary masterpiece loaded with dexterity and insight.

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The Sense of an Ending

Author: Julian Barnes
Genre: Fiction, Contemporary, Literature, Literary Fiction
First Published: 2011
Format: Paperback, 160 pages

Book Blurb:

Tony Webster and his clique first met Adrian Finn at school. Sex-hungry and book-hungry, they would navigate the girl-less sixth form together, trading in affectations, in-jokes, rumour and wit. Maybe Adrian was a little more serious than the others, certainly more intelligent, but they all swore to stay friends for life. Now Tony is retired. He’s had a career and a single marriage, a calm divorce. He’s certainly never tried to hurt anybody. Memory, though, is imperfect. It can always throw up surprises, as a lawyer’s letter is about to prove.

The central theme of The Sense of an Ending :

“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.”

How often indeed? We choose to remember only that which we want to remember. We modify our own memories, even implant false memories at times, just to write our life stories the way we want to believe it all happened.

For example, a doting wife would conveniently ignore the flaws in her husband, even if they were visible to the entire world, just because she's cast him in the role of "her knight in shining armour"! And a man might convince himself to believe that his love interest is married to someone else, even when there is not a shred of evidence towards this, just because he happens to relate with the Indian 'devdaas' character!

As Julian Barnes has so aptly highlighted in his book, The Sense of an Ending, human memory is indeed subjective and quite unreliable.

The main characters of The Sense of an Ending :

  1. Tony Webster is the narrator of this story - an average, self-centered guy, who, like most of us, has...
    "settled for the realities of life, and submitted to its necessities".
    His youthful ambitions and inspirations have given way to "maturity" and "practicality", and he just allows himself to be swept with the tide, rather than try making any waves.

    As he narrates his version of the story, he is very much aware of this "subjectivity" of his memory, and constantly points this out, portraying himself as an unreliable narrator. And while his life...
    "didn't turn out to be like Literature"...
    he's more-or-less content with it, with...
    "Some achievements and some disappointments."
    Until he's bequeathed an unexpected legacy of 500 pounds, which makes him re-visit his past and question his memories. But does he find the answers he's looking for? Is he able to make peace with his past eventually?

  2. Adrian Finn is Tony's old school friend, who analyses life and relationships in mathematical equations, adds a philosophical angle to everything, and is very much concerned with apportioning responsibility and blame for every little event in history.

    He seems to know clearly what he wants from life. His teachers and peers think of him as nothing short of a genius.

    Until his sudden suicide, with a note for the coroner, saying...
    "life is a gift bestowed without anyone asking for it; that the thinking person has a philosophical duty to examine both the nature of life and the conditions it comes with; and that if this person decides to renounce the gift no one asks for, it is the moral and human duty to act on the consequences of that decision."
    But was his suicide really the answer to a philosophical question? Was it really any different from their sixth-form classmate Robson's suicide, who got a girl pregnant in his youth, couldn't face the consequences, so ended his life? And was he really justified in holding Tony responsible for the events of his life?

  3. Veronica Ford was Tony's university girlfriend, who, according to Tony's perspective, dumped him and started dating Adrian, Tony's smarter friend, only to spite Tony!

    But was she really the "bitch" Tony believed her to be? Or was she "damaged goods" as her mom made her out to be? Does the book lead to a romantic reunion between her and Tony?

I was instantly hooked to the writing style of The Sense of an Ending, because it almost seemed like Tony Webster's personal blog--his experiences, his memories, his feelings, his perspectives. Very much like my own MugOfMuse, you know, complete with its humble "disclaimer" that the observations are "restricted to the extent of my perception" and "may not necessarily hold any truth/validity"!

In fact, just like MugOfMuse, it even tends to ramble on a bit at times - not serving any purpose in the advancement of the plot, yet playing a vital role in describing the character of the narrator.

And Barnes' insights about life and people are just so astute! For instance...

“How time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but we were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them. Time... give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical.”

And another deep one about time...

“The time-deniers say: forty’s nothing, at fifty you’re in your prime, sixty’s the new forty, and so on. I know this much: that there is objective time, but also subjective time, the kind you wear on the inside of your wrist, next to where the pulse lies. And this personal time, which is the true time, is measured in your relationship to memory. So when this strange thing happened – when these new memories suddenly came upon me – it was as if, for that moment, time had been placed in reverse.”

Here's one on the complexity of relationships...

“What if you can prove you weren't the bad guy she took you for, and she is willing to accept your proof?”

“You're doing it for yourself, of course. You're wanting to leave that final memory, and make it a pleasant one. You want to be well thought of...”

My top personal favorites though are...

“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.”


“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 then 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.”

Despite being such a short book, The Sense of an Ending weaves a complex web of real-life characters. People who aren't just simple "black-and-white". People you can relate to. People whose personalities are revealed to you layer after layer, just like in real life.

The suspense keeps you turning the pages, and yet, the depth of the philosophical insights in the book makes you stop reading every now and then, and reflect on your own life instead. The book sucks you right into the plot and keeps you there for a long time, even after you've finished reading it!

My rating: 5 out of 5. The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes, is a disturbing, yet, an elegantly composed, thought-provoking tale about time and aging, memory and remorse, mistakes and disappointments, responsibility and blame. HIGHLY RECOMMEND IT.

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