The Sense of an Ending

by Julian Barnes

It didn’t take me long to read The Sense of an Ending, which just won the 2011 Man Booker Prize for its author Julian Barnes. It didn’t take me long for two reasons: a) it’s a novella, just 176 pages; and b) it’s nearly impossible to put down. This is a page-turner not because the stakes are so high; in fact, the stakes are awfully low and intensely personal. Essentially, our protagonist and narrator, Tony Webster, spends the first part of the story remembering certain pivotal events of his youth, and the second part–well, trying to remember if he was remembering them correctly. It adds up to a breathtaking meditation on personal history and the ways our memories protect and betray us–and the question of whether an ordinary life is worth living.

The Sense of an Ending revolves around the relationships of three characters: Tony, his more academically promising friend Adrian, and Veronica, the young woman involved romantically with both of them. Tony, quite literally, writes the two of them out of his boringly conventional life–until, forty years later, events conspire to bring the past back to life.

Over the course of the story, Barnes returns to the significance of historical events and the reliability–or lack thereof–of their telling again and again. Is history “the lies of the victors” and “the self-delusions of the defeated”?  Is it “that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation”? Or is it as the mature Tony suggests late in the book: “the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated”? It’s a question that, in the context of the story and its unexpected and powerful ending, will haunt readers long after the two or three hours devoted to reading The Sense of an Ending have passed from memory.

It’s all very British and very philosophical–yet so honest and finally detailed that it feels personal. The Sense of an Ending may inspire you to take another look at significant events in your own past. Or, given that what you find may not be exactly what you remember, not.