Blimey. I didn't see that one coming. I don't think I've ever read a book before which I ultimately ended up liking but about which I was so ambivalent while reading it. And it is the twist at the end which saves it.
The book opens with three over-testosteroned, undersexed arrogant schoolboys, the narrator Tony, Colin and Alex being joined by a fourth, the more intelligent and/or pretentious Adrian. We are very firmly in the territory of Alan Bennett's History Boys or Barnes' own Metroland. At this stage of the book I found myself wondering if the world really needs yet another account of obnoxious young men studying humanities. Three notable features of the book are established in this first section. Firstly the suicide of a schoolboy is treated unsympathetically by his peers and by the author (with unoriginal "trendy" disdain for the geek). Secondly Adrian is more a plot device and mouthpiece for the author than a credible character. Thirdly Barnes expounds his main themes that time like water flows unpredictably, and that both personal memory and public history are untrustworthy.
The second act sees Tony at university where he meets the enigmatic Veronica. It is primarily an account of their unsuccessful courtship, including a brief but notable visit to meet Veronica's parents. This is probably the most effective, least clichéd part of the novel. It ends with the tragedy which is central to the book.
We then jump forward to a 60 year old retired and divorced Tony, living out his days doing good works. For the second time I found myself asking "do we really need this, again". This section appears to be yet another account of middle class, middle aged, middle income misery explored in tedious detail. It has been said that the one redeeming feature of the middle class in history is that it is the only class which loathes itself. Tony is the embodiment of that.
Things change when Tony receives a letter from a solicitor which takes him back 40 years to the unreliably remembered world of Veronica and Adrian. From this point the narrative twists repeatedly, forcing Tony and the reader to re-examine their opinions of his past. I have to say that the first major twist involving a letter written by Tony in the 60s is scarcely credible. I found it difficult to believe that he would not remember an act that significant.
After a second twist, I found myself thinking that the novel was ridiculously melodramatic, almost Victorian in its morality.
However, as I have said, it is the final twist which makes the novel. This forces Tony to re-examine his past yet again, but it also forced me as a reader to re-examine my reaction to the novel. The whole thing seemed slightly out of kilter, wrong, but then the genuine denouement really does make things click into place and focus.
So, to what I liked and disliked. Here I return to where I started, with ambivalence. The Sense of an Ending is undoubtedly a very skilfully structured, brilliantly plotted novel, but I found myself wondering, as I have before with Barnes, whether it is just too clever by half, too clever for its own good. Also, I did have a nagging doubt that the plot is just too mechanical, to the point of clumsiness.
The imagery, the time/water parallel, with the Severn Bore forming a particularly strong/apt metaphor is brilliantly used, but I found myself thinking it was just too much of a creative writing exercise.
The book is gripping, I found myself regretting having to put it down, and desperate to get back to it, but then at times this desire to follow the narrative is frustrated by Barnes himself wandering off into irrelevant, rather dull detail.
It is beautifully written, but does Barnes at times become self indulgent?
From the other side, it appears to be a book of rather tired, over used themes, but then Barnes challenges these themes and the reader's reaction to them.
It contains an artist's contempt for the scientific nerd, but then even this is challenged (although not completely convincingly) by the end.
Two final points to finish. If I am being pedantic, Barnes consistently makes a grammatical error, which considering his precision as a novelist, I cannot believe is accidental, but which is also not convincing in the mouth of Tony. Secondly, I had the audio version of the book, and the reading is good, but not the best. The reading is a little dull, and there is an annoying tendency, occasionally, to mispronounce words, and to use the wrong emphasis.
So, I would recommend reading this book, it is too intelligent, too ultimately entertaining for me not to. However be prepared to be frustrated and annoyed by it.
on 10 April 2012
Firstly, if you're looking for a short, intense read, this is the book for you. The brevity of Barnes' text is both its strong point and also its downfall - the ending was just too abrupt for me. I do like an ending which challenges me and forces me to question events that have happened earlier, but I found this book's ending to be vague and annoying. Maybe the title 'The Sense of an Ending' is exactly what the reader gets!
The book does have a lot of stuff to enjoy. The character of Veronica is one of the best I've read in the past few years - she's enigmatic, interesting and never fails to surprise. I also liked the themes about memories and corroboration; I agree with Barnes' view that we sometimes remember events differently from how they actually were.
My favourite aspect of the book was the language. The speech between Tony and his mates, especially at school, felt very real, and the sort of talk you would hear in everyday life. There's also a lot of humour in the beginning, which helps break up the dark subject matter.
The only thing that lets 'The Sense of an Ending' down is the ending ...
on 17 April 2012
Although I admired the writer's craft I found this a rather joyless read. No doubt this was due to the subject matter of two suicides, central to the book, but I found the characters to be lacking in wamth and empathy. Maybe this is the writer's take on the English middle class but there seems little to admire in any of the people described in the book. It is however a compelling read due to the fluency of the prose and the ending was neatly written.
As someone else remarked it seemed a little too celebral, which worked well in Flaubert's Parrot, but in this portrayal of human relationships and the pain of past actions was a little too cold and clinical.
on 28 August 2011
As one of the great philosophers said 'an unexamined life is not worth living'. Julian Barnes comes close to proving that an 'examined life' is not worth living either. It is all just too painful to contemplate. This is a totally uncompromising novel which will surely cause any perceptive reader some uncomfortable moments of introspection. It is all about the frustrations, randomness and compromises of life. The early promise so casually squandered and the arrogant egocentric certainties of youth. It delves deep into our psyche and awakens memories like sad music long forgotten. It really hurts.
In a previous review for Amazon I was taken to task for revealing the plot. So I will simply say that the ending of this otherwise perfect novel was overcooked. It should have been possible to reach the tragic denouement without so much clumsy contrived subterfuge. It is still one of the best short novels that I have read in a very long time.
Tony is our hero yet he is an ordinary chap. That is until he begins to undress himself publicly while solidly attempting to tease out the meaning from his life. Here we can be at one with him, and for any sixty year old there is much that chimes and reminds.
This book has descriptions of some masculine moments that I might rather pass by. There's something about boyish recitations of physical functions that shock and linger. These were once known as the dirty bits. They do reinforce the honesty and reality. Luckily they are wrapped and enveloped in more marvellously clever writing - with many long and interesting words - some new to me.
"You just don't get it" is the hurled accusation; which forms the whirling vortex of his genuine, well meaning, but perhaps bumbling perplexity. It takes the whole of this slim but perfectly formed volume for us to "get it" too.
And that's the enjoyment of `The Sense of an Ending'. An afternoon's read, not easily put aside or forgotten. Julian Barnes has given his readers a gem, a microcosm, a little bit of his heart and soul.
P.S. Today I hear this has won the Booker Prize! Hurray.
on 26 April 2012
At first I was intrigued and pleased: here was a Booker winner that wasn't written in tortuous, incomprehensible prose. I enjoyed it up to the end, even though the protagonist's meandering thought processes seemed to be there to pad out a novella rather than make up a full novel. But then came the conclusion. Eh? Like the protagonist, I didn't get it, and found myself shrugging, and thinking that, after all, it was a Booker prize winner. More prize winning obscurity. I really couldn't see why the guy was beating himself up about something that happened forty years before, nor why his ex-girl friend bothered to keep responding and stringing him along. A shame, as I did find much of it quite enjoyable.
on 5 March 2012
As this won the Booker Prize, I gave it a go but found there was so little to it that I was amazed it was selected as the best book of the year. It's a very slight, oblique book about a group of irritating school friends, a suicide, a weird relationship and a protagonist who seems disconnected to the world as he looks back on things in old age. Not a lot happens, the main character seems lost in a sea of mundane thoughts, and there's a lot of pretentious speculation on the nature of life, which doesn't feel as though it has enough material on which to draw to come to the conclusions reached.
Yes it is clever in parts, but it doesn't ultimately deliver a decent novel. I suppose the Booker Prize judges know better, or perhaps they don't.
on 5 August 2011
I was hooked even before the hardback book dropped on my doormat - courtesy of Amazon. Earlier, I'd read an extract in one of the newspapers and was captivated. I must read the rest, I thought. On its arrival yesterday morning, I put it to one side and then read it in one go during the evening. Now I wish I hadn't. I wanted the tale - like life - to go on longer. But I'm being selfish.
Mr Barnes has written a work which will resonate with many in our shared age group, born 1944 to 1948. The awkwardness of friendships and adolescence, leaving home for college in the 1960's - perhaps the first one in the family to so do. First and unrequited love. Reflection and What If? ...... and an ending. It's all there. Perhaps it's the same tale for every generation but I thought he was writing about me and my time. I thought it was an exceptional read and plausible. The problem is, where does Julian Barnes go from here? It can't get much better than this.
on 8 April 2012
I want to give this two or three stars,,,, but I like the vignette of the male psyche and the banality of life. I sort of liked Tony too, and the atmosphere of the book... and I've been thinking about it alot since I shut the book.... the following is my synopsis of the conclusion (the big secret unravelled),,, and its really what I didn't like,,, I wonder if I got it? I might be completely wrong,,, Comments please????
-Well I am not sure I get it,,,, but this is what I got,,,,, SPOILER ALERT,, the story I think is this, Tone told Ade to chat to Vrons mum,, Veronika's mum was a bit of a goer and shagged Adrian, she then got pregnant with Adrians child,,, which obviously upset V'ron who then finished with Ade,,,, Ade then killed himself for the shame of shagging his girlfriends mum,,, dressing it up as some existential philosophical choice thing,,, the child grew up with some deficiency (neglect, was Vrons mum a drinker???),,, then the Mum (the goer) decided to inexplicably leave Ade £500 and Ade's diary,,, which V'ron nicked in order to cover up what she finally sort of tell's Tone in a round about way anyway,,, she blames Tone for his frankly bitter little letter,,, relieving herself, her vamp mum and Ade of all responsibility. If I was Tony I'd have told them all to bog off and take some responsibility for their own actions and stop guilt tripping him..... jeez louise........ intellectual story,,, nope, Eastender's script,,, maybe.
on 24 January 2012
A fascinating but flawed work. This short novel, part set forty years ago and concluded in the present day detailing the narrator's link with a rather eccentric family. When he again meets Veronica it would have far more realistic had she told him the full story, rather that setting a trail that leads to the solution fifty pages later. Originally Tony didn't get it - neither did I till rereading the book.
An interesting read, but if this was the best book published in 2011, it doesn't say much for the rest.