The BUZZ: Winner of the 2011 Man Book Prize. Julian Barnes is a prolific and award-winning fiction and non-fiction author.
The GIST: This short novel is a powerful study of the way we rewrite our memories to suit the story of our lives. Tony Webster is now retired after an ordinary life of marriage, divorce, childrearing, and an uneventful career. He assumes he will chug along in his comfortable, complacent way for the duration. Then a letter arrives and changes everything. He must now reconsider his past, the part he has played in others’ lives, and his own responsibility for unintended consequences. He may not be the man he thought he was.
The WRITING: Clear and compelling. This story is all the more intimate because it is told in the first person. Tony puts on a good front, and we believe he is well-meaning and innocent. But he is also fallible. He’s glossed over his actions and missed some crucial facts. Barnes unwraps this tale from the right angle, presenting us with the past first – as Tony remembers it – and then having the past visit the present. We are as shocked as Tony to discover the truth that lies at the heart of his story. As readers, we are forced to consider our own responsibility for those we thought were no longer part of our lives.
BUY or BORROW?: Buy. As soon as I finished The Sense of An Ending, I started to re-read it. As in life, when we have all the facts we gain clarity. The second reading was a revelation. Barnes’ seemingly simple tale is subtly layered and more profound than it appears on the surface.
Who was it said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it’s not convenient – it’s not useful – to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.