Is it possible to like a book even if you do not understand everything in it? This is what I feel after reading Julian Barnes’ award-winning novel, The Sense of An Ending.
The story is told in the voice of Tony Webster, now retired, once married, got divorced, and is essentially in that phase in his life where he spends most of his time thinking about his past. The book is divided into two parts, the second part taking twice as long as the first one. Tony begins his narrative with a list of things which do not have any connection with each other (yet) and proceeds to talk about his high school days and how he meets his buddies, Colin and Alex, and eventually absorbing into their tight clique, Adrian Finn, who seems to be the most intellectual of the four of them. They eventually go to different schools in college and despite their promise to stay in touch, they somehow drift apart go went on their separate ways. In college, Tony meets Veronica who becomes his girlfriend, but they part ways thereafter. Tony receives a letter from Adrian informing him that he (Adrian) has been seeing Veronica, and Tony sends him a spiteful reply. Adrian commits suicide and Tony is forced to confront his past, including communicating again with Veronica, and try to make sense of his muddy memories.
I must confess that after reading the book, there were still lots of questions I have about the story, and I have to consult other reviews just so I can have a confirmation of whether I have understood the ending correctly. I still have other unanswered questions, though, and I guess I am pretty much like Tony Webster in this respect, where I think I do not just get everything at all.
Tony Webster is described as an unreliable narrator. He himself warns the reader of the unreliability of his own memories:
“If I can’t be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left. That’s the best I can manage.”
Tony’s recollections about his past are not perfect and there might be some parts which he might have not remembered at all. But despite this imperfection, Tony is able to tell his story with all honesty and sincerity that he can muster. His reminiscences (and this recollecting happens a lot all throughout the book) he describes with either fondness or disdain, but what I have observed is his somewhat bleak view of his life and of what he has become.
“Because just as all political and historical change sooner or later disappoints, so does adulthood. So does life.”
What I like about Tony is that he is truly honest with his feelings no matter how negative they are. He does not mince words when it comes to his thoughts no matter how evil they are. And I believe he cannot be faulted for feeling or thinking that way, especially when he describes his memories of his past, because those feelings and emotions are authentic and justified — at that time at least.
Other reviews say that The Sense of an Ending is not actually a novel but a novella because of its brevity. I did not have any idea of its length when I read it because I only have an ebook version, but for me, reading it felt like reading a long novel, nonetheless. It is replete with insights which only maturity and time can raise, and these insights are worth reflecting on especially by those who are still living the prime of their lives.
For indeed there is truly nothing more saddening in life than living in regret and remorse.
“But time…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 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.”
This is my first Julian Barnes and I am not disappointed. At first, my complaint about the story is that if only the people involved would just sit down together and talk about their issues like mature adults instead of assuming and expecting the other to simply understand what the other means without saying anything, then everything would have just turned out okay. Tony Webster would not have been very pessimistic about his life. But then, if the characters did that, what is there for Tony to tell at all? There wouldn’t have been The Sense of An Ending at all! Haha. 😀
But Julian Barnes has deftly tied up the loose ends at the end, and I just can’t help but re-read the first part after finishing the book because, by doing so, I can try to figure out what the seemingly senseless ramblings of Tony actually meant. This is the kind of book that you have to read several times (for me, at least) before you can finally understand (almost) everything.
My copy: ebook downloaded from a website I already forgot.