Julian Barnes won the Man Booker prize for The Sense of an Ending. The prize is awarded each year to a novel originating from Great Britain and the Commonwealth of Nations. I first read it in early 2012, when I borrowed it from a friend who told me it was a “must read.” I have since bought it myself, as it was required reading for a college course I am still taking. The four year gap between readings gave me a new perspective on the material, and is quite appropriate to the story itself, since much of the book is about revisiting the past.
The narrator is Tony Webster, a man in his sixties who did everything right, or so he thought, but never took any risks. The full ramifications of his actions (or lack thereof) as a young man begin to creep into his present life. Is it too late for him to do anything about it? the reader must ask. His unremarkable life obscures the breathtaking profundity of another story, which we discover along with Tony. The novel largely unfolds like a tale of mystery. One piece of evidence at a time.
Barnes explores the fallibility of memory, the lies we tell ourselves, and the ebb and flow of personal relationships. Again, he is very economical with his language here. I am reading another Man Booker Prize winner at the moment, A Brief History of Seven Killings, and its style is completely different from The Sense of an Ending. Marlon James in Killings is verbose and employs expansive heteroglossia, because it is a completely different kind of story, for which the word “brief” is tongue-in-cheek.
What is so amazing about this novel’s prose is its pithy words of wisdom and its symmetric intellectual themes. I found many quotable passages. But nothing I can say will express how it feels to be transported to a nineteen-sixties English boarding school. The Sense of an Ending – both times I read it – elicited a torrent of nostalgia for my past boyhood. And the second time I read it, I felt regret for not having learned from Tony’s mistakes the first damn time.