Tag Archives: Julian Barnes

THE SENSE OF AN ENDING by Julian Barnes


The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes is an odd book.

It got great reviews. It won the Man Booker award. Someone always includes it in comments to Facebook posts that say, “I need a new book to read. Suggestions?” I enjoyed it a lot while I was reading it. I even enjoyed it when I finished it.

But upon a few hours’ reflection, it doesn’t hold up.

The Sense of an Ending is narrated by Tony Webster, a man in his 60s or so, who receives word that he has been left 500 pounds and a diary in the will of the recently-deceased mother of an ex-girlfriend. If that sounds attenuated, it is – and Barnes spends the book exploring Tony’s relationship to the mother, the ex-girlfriend, and the writer of the diary, who was one of his old schoolmates.

It is hard to review this book without including spoilers, so I am being intentionally shadowy on this one. At the beginning of the book, Tony isn’t really honest about his relationships with the ex-girlfriend and the schoolmate, or at least about how those relationships ended. His omissions have some bearing on the mystery of why Tony was bequeathed the diary, and whether or not he actually gets his hands on it.

The Sense of an Ending explores questions about memory and how memories can adapt or be selectively conjured for self-preservation. Tony is an unreliable narrator, as every review of this book points out, because he deliberately includes and omits details that show him in a harsh light, only sharing them when he can’t avoid it any longer. As a result, the reader is never really sure whether he or she is getting the whole story, or what actually transpired. But I think that’s Barnes’ point – our interpretations of our lives and the people in them is necessarily subjective.

Barnes is an eloquent and perceptive writer, with that British style that makes you wonder whether Americans and English people actually speak the same language. He teases out the story slowly enough that you want to keep reading, and there are enough little twists and turns to keep you on your toes.

But. This is a fundamentally simple story, with only a few core questions, and Barnes ultimately doesn’t answer most of them. There’s a big reveal at the end, but I was still left wondering, “What just happened? Did I miss something?” There are too many holes here to be the big mystery that I think it is billed as. And the ending was a little anti-climactic. So while I enjoyed reading The Sense of an Ending, I don’t think it holds up into perpetuity.

I listened to The Sense of an Ending mostly on audio, which was excellent. Great understated British narrator. The downside of audio for this book is that it’s harder to go back and re-read select passages, which I wanted to do fairly frequently, given how Barnes teased out information.

 

ARTHUR & GEORGE by Julian Barnes

Here’s a book I have read about several times recently, but I actually saw for the first time at a bookstore over the weekend: Arthur & George by Julian Barnes. According to my Book Lovers’ Calendar:

BarnesArthur & George is a beautifully structured story that interweaves the lives of Arthur (Conan Doyle) and George (Edalji). The Victorian setting teems with issues of class, morality, friendship and love. Chapter by chapter, Arthur and George merge and emerge. What you need to know comes along in its own good time, while you become completely hooked into this story of the world’s most renowned writer of detective fiction and an unknown Staffordshire solicitor accused of heinous crimes.  Why and how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle proves George Edalji’s innocent is Julian Barnes’s brilliant achievement, a marvelous fiction based on a true and historically significant story.

The Washington Post says:

Beneath the appearance of a straightforward historical novel, Barnes develops a double-helix, alternating the storyline between his main narrators, before showing how these two disparate, and desperate, outsiders come to each other’s rescue… More to the point, Barnes’s artistry underscores that these two proper gentlemen are both, in fact, victimized by the systems they admire most — the law and chivalry. Together, they are nonetheless able to redeem lives wracked by hopelessness and frustration.

Barnes’s writing is, as usual, masterly throughout Arthur & George, not only as the pages shift from one man’s consciousness to the other’s but also in the way their author keeps the reader on edge. Facts are interpreted, then reinterpreted; the bigoted speak convincingly; nothing turns out quite as expected; and even the book’s coda delivers a final shock.

The Bookdork blog is not as glowing about the book:

The first Barnes book I’ve read that wasn’t a total slam-dunk, though it did win me over, eventually. I liked the dramatization of historical events, the weird quirks of the two main characters’ lives, and the deft juxtaposition of two major narratives. The actual story just failed to grab me by the throat, that’s all, and Barnes is at his best with contemporary characters who express themselves verbally – Arthur and George are both on the inarticulate/stiff side.

If any of you have read this book, please weigh in. I’d love to know what you thought.