Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is one of those novels that, although not long, has depth in its voice, and one can see why the Man Booker judges were impressed.
The novel could be loosely compared to something like Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, or (probably closer) the Bascombe novels of Richard Ford, in that the first-person text is considered and thoughtful, ruminating on life and loss. But where Ford seems to just wander (beautifully, articulately, philosophically), Barnes’ book ends in such a way that the book has to be tightly constructed. I have been reading a bit of Ann Patchett lately, and she says that some novelists just invent characters and see what happens (can’t remember if Patchett is one of these novelists – don’t think so, though she suggests that as a novelist you can’t be too rigid about what you expect the characters to get up to). This is definitely not the case for The Sense of an Ending, and it’s brilliance lies in its ability to be both meditative and a page-turning plot-twister. And (without giving too much away), in the fact that the reader is made to question earlier assumptions about the characters as much as the lead character. There’s that feeling of the world being refocused, dizzyingly.
That is not to suggest it is perfect. This is a first-person narrative, so are we to believe that this is a book dictated by the character? Or are we meant to think of the character telling this story (as in a classical drama). I always find the presuppositions here to be a bit false. Barnes’ narrator describes events from 40 years ago, when he was at university, and his memory seems unnaturally clear, even though he does suggest that the events in question are captured in his memory because they are significant (as opposed to other events in his life). Indeed, what does seem true is that Barnes has captured that feeling of events in one’s youth being significant and fresh, even though, many years on, they may as well have happened to a different person, and despite the fact that a barrage of seemingly more significant events have happened in the meantime – marriage, children, divorce… Still, does one remember everything everyone said on the event in question?
Anyway, that is to quibble. Barnes is good at evoking that nostalgic sense of “what-if?” and the sense of wanting, as one gets older (or perhaps as some of us get older), to revisit and try to make some sense of youth from the perspective of (slightly wiser) age.