Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is his eleventh novel (published under his own name) and won the Man Booker Prize in 2011, the same year that it was published.
The book sees its narrator and central character, Antony ‘Tony’ Webster, take us on a personal retrospective starting at his school days spent in science sixth to the past weeks and months leading ultimately to the present, the time of penning of his journal-cum-confessional. Throughout this time, two other key characters – Adrian and Veronica – are key and consistently relevant. Adrian Finn is his perceptive and intellectually acute school chum and Veronica the girl whom he meets and has a relationship with during his time at Bristol. The narrator gives an impression of Veronica as guarded and lofty, transitioning to outrightly severe as we near the back end of the book, and present time. The relationship ends after some time.
In a series of correspondences that Tony and his school friends share in an effort to maintain contact, a letter one day arrives in which something unexpected presents itself. Adrian describes that he has entered into a relationship with Veronica and asks for Tony’s good faith, which, if not given, might prompt Adrian to reconsider his course of action. Whilst Tony glibly gives the all-clear at the time, it becomes apparent that his feelings include insecurity and bitterness. Crucially, these feelings manifest in the form of a vitriolic letter written to the pair which, though for the most part unreasonable and striking an acrid tone, do drive Adrian to make an important decision. Later, when Adrian and Veronica are becoming more serious, Adrian is compelled to consult Veronica’s mother on matters. It is this that leads to the unfurling of the relationship, the stability of Veronica and her family and the plot. Adrian sleeps with Veronica’s mother. Adrian commits suicide. Their child is born defective.
In the present, it is clear that the emotional pressures of her husband’s suicide and infidelity, and further the humiliation of this infidelity having been with her mother have stacked up. It is clear that in part there is a hostility from her towards Tony built, perhaps flimsily, by her seeing his letter as a lynchpin in driving Adrian towards her mother. More reasonably, she is angry, and some of that anger spills over to him, an individual whom she had no interest in seeing and who was bequeathed Adrian’s old diary from her recently deceased mother. This latter detail in fact sets the cogs in motion in Barnes’ narrative stream. Tony feels remorse and Barnes ensures that we are left with the sense that he feels guilty and is guilty. The tragedy of the novel hinges on it. I question though, what honour-based value system is required to validate this guilt. Applying our modern moral principles, Tony surely shirks blame for the actions of his old friend and his misdemeanours. Perhaps more difficult, but his suicide and the birth of his abnormal son also see their blame hit elsewhere (if anywhere; see opening discussions in the classroom by Adrian on blame and historiography). His ex-girlfriend’s anger, therefore, may lie instead in the realm of inappropriately directed but reasonable and understandable human emotion, as opposed to an honour-based directed apportionment of culpability onto Anthony Webster.
Overall, Barnes’ was a clever and well-constructed book which ties together motifs of history-historiography, time, philosophy, responsibility and memory. This is complemented by the book’s soft and punctuated narrative style. Like many good books, it makes obvious the relevance of its motifs to you the reader, engaging you and goading you to sink your teeth deeper into the books substance and those ideas which join the boundary of the classroom to your lives.