Friday, December 30, 2011

The Sense of an Ending

There's a good possibility Julian Barnes' Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sense of an Ending, will be my final completed book in 2011. And it's a good way to cap off the year!

My first experience with Julian Barnes's work wasn't really any experience at all. I was scheduled to take a Contemporary British Literature class to cap off my undergraduate degree in 2003, but I ended up dropping the class in favor of a different British lit class with a professor with a bigger, badder attitude. I can't say I regret it, as the class I opted for introduced me to one of the most influential of authors I've ever read: T.S. Eliot and my all-time favorite poem, "The Waste Land". The bigger, badder professor also turned out to be a life changer, leaving the university to pursue the priesthood, largely influenced by T.S. Eliot and his work. His influence drove me to get a graduate degree in English. What's not to love about that?

Why am I wasting your time with this remembrance? Because it is formative and my memories are memories I consider concrete, unchanging, certain. The main character in Barnes's novel, Tony Webster, discovers that his own memories are not so certain. The book is split into two long chapters, the first of which details Tony's adolescence with his three best friends--namely the enigmatic Adrian Finn--as well as his naive fumblings with girlfriend, Veronica. The latter half of the book is Tony's realization that his has been a fulfilling but lackluster adulthood. When he receives an attorney's letter in the mail he's left scrambling through those earlier memories to put together pieces of a puzzle that will thoroughly unsettle him.

This is a great book in a number of ways. First off, it's only 170ish pages in print, and it was only 107 on my Nook. The amount of character building and the sense of realism Barnes is able to infuse in a story of this length is quite an accomplishment. I'm a proponent of short stories, so it's probably not surprising that I would enjoy what amounts, in my mind, to a novella, but I guess the impressive part is the sense of realism Barnes imparts with a lot of different issues swirling around the characters. Issues of time, philosophy, class, relationships, sexuality, and suicide.

To build on that, this novel is a lit-gasm, y'all. There is a ton of talk about literature and literary devices, philosophy, and a good many intertextual references. In the beginning, Tony is reflecting on his experiences in school, and Adrian tends to be pretty brilliant, so the banter about philosophy and literature was really fun for me. I also knew there was an intertextual reference in the title, but it wasn't until I stumbled upon a review in Vogue that I figured out what it was (because I'm too lazy to Google it): "Barnes’s title is taken from critic Frank Kermode, whose landmark analysis of fiction examined the consolations of narrative and the corrections authors make to bring meaning and order to a chaotic world." 

The title says so much about the novel. The biggest issue at work in this little book is Tony's struggle with memory. He remembers his first girlfriend as much more of a cold fish than she probably was, he idolizes his friend Adrian more than necessary, and quite honestly, he remembers himself in a much nicer, more flattering light than was true. It's only when he looks back at a letter to Adrian and Veronica that it really dawns on him how fallible memory can be.

I'm SO not doing this book justice. Tony is a regular guy who experiences a big slap to his ego and a big snap back to reality in light of who he and his friends really were in their youth. The only thing that left me slightly unsatisfied was the ending. There is a surprise ending in this book -- a revelation that honestly surprised me, though looking back through my notes and highlights, it probably shouldn't have surprised me. While I was satisfied with the surprise itself, the novel only lasted a few pages past the surprise. As a reader, I wanted Tony to grapple with the truth a bit more before the novel closed. It's a small complaint in the grand scheme of things.

While I am absolutely certain I'm impressed by this book, especially from a technical perspective, I'm not sure how long it'll stick with me. I wasn't touched on an emotional level (which I tend to prefer in picking all-time faves), but I found myself in a constant state of analysis while reading. Barnes is a good storyteller and a thoughtful evaluator of issues. While I'm interested in reading more of his work, and while I appreciate this novel, it didn't win me over on visceral level, but it sure impressed me on the cerebral plane.

Snuggle (more like a firm handshake with a professor) -- Skewer

Pub. Date: October 2011
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Format: E-book
ISBN-13: 9780307957122
Source: Purchased by me.


  1. Hmm, I think that the lack of emotional connection would bother me a bit. I don't mind being cerebrally impressed, but that alone usually isn't enough for me to enjoy a book.

  2. Hm, I don't like to do a lot of analyzing when I read, so this may not be for me.

  3. I think I might like this one, and have never read anything by Barnes before. I do sometimes enjoy a cerebral read, and don't always have to be emotionally moved (but to be honest, I prefer to be). I like the way that you crafted this review, and I enjoyed reading your opinions on it. It sounds like something that I should look into!

  4. I enjoy Barnes' writing style, though I think I've only read one or two books by him, Arthur & George being the one I most remember. I am so glad you enjoyed this book so much, and I am delighted to hear your story about T.S. Eliot :-)

  5. I love books that challenge me to think and go back to what I learned in school. It sounds like this is a book I would really love as it would challenge my inner lit nerd. I will definitely be adding this to my TBR list!

    And thanks for sharing some of your memories from college. I love the way books can evoke the personal.

  6. I can definitely appreciate a greatly literary work of literature! (If that makes sense.) I think this one would gel with me, though the lack of emotional connection makes me nervous. Still, I think I could set that aside.

  7. I've never read Barnes before, but this one had caught my attention because of the Man-Booker prize.

    I think I might like this; the idea of how our rememberances are probably embellished in one respect or another despite our best efforts at being true to the memory is an interesting one, and one that I probably agree with.

    I'm not much for short stories, but novellas are okay as long as there is sufficient depth to the story and characters, and from your insightful review, it seems like that is the case here.

    Hope you enjoy your New Year's weekend :)

  8. i reallly need to put the time aside to read this. the next time my husband is away on a trip i'm going to take a quiet evening for it!

  9. What I love about a Man Booker prize winner is that, while it may sometimes be confusing or convoluted, it generates such contemplation and thought. I know there's always issues with whatever is selected for the prize, but the ones I've read so far have really been the ticket for me. I'll have to make sure I look for this one!

  10. I've never read Barnes and wasn't sure this appealed to me when I heard it won, but it has been duly added to my reading list, so thank you! :)

  11. Sounds a bit Rashomon-like, if I'm understanding you rightly? If so, that's intriguing to me. Thanks!

  12. Sam and Kathy, I think this response applies to both of your comments. I think the story can most definitely be appreciated on an emotional level. Something about Barnes's writing and some of the cues in this novel put me right back into graduate school analysis mode. I could imagine sitting around a table with my colleagues picking it apart. BUT, like I said, I think if one were to read it in one quick shot and enjoy the story a little more, it would be more emotional and/or surprising.

  13. Thanks, Heather! I definitely think this is a book you could appreciate/enjoy. It seems like something that would be up your alley. :)

    Thanks, Aarti! That's one of my favorite stories from my undergrad years. The professor and the Eliot discussion was so moving, and for me it was most definitely life-changing. I will definitely pursue more of Barnes's work and will look into Arthur & George.

  14. Jennifer, this would most definitely put you into lit-nerd mode. I went there immediately!!!

    Meg, I think maybe the lack of emotion was just me. I liked the characters a lot, but Tony was almost non-descript in his later years looking back. Which makes the twist all that much more shocking probably. So I think it was also a literary device on Barnes's part.

    BookGirl, embellished memories are also of interest to me. It's only as I've entered my 30s I realize how true that really is--that our memories are not always accurate. Very insightful/interesting novel!

  15. Marie, I'm almost 100% certain you will love this book. :)

    Natalie, I have my favorite awards, and the Man Booker is probably at the tippy top. They do always invoke lots of thought.

    Enjoy, Danielle!

    I hope you like it if you get around to it, Amy!

  16. I'm so glad you loved this one too! I was mesmerized and amazed by this novel, and it struck me how it's not a novel one could write at my age. I was struck emotionally too, but the curse of reading it in a single session is that I am already foggy on some of the details. Regardless, it's perhaps the title from 2011 I'm most likely to re-read in 2012, and I think it's a novel I'll continue to pull off the virtual shelf for many years to come.

  17. I don't necessarily have great luck with Booker prize winners (good but not great...not that I've read a ton of them) but this one has caught my eye and captured my imagination for some reason, I've been wanting to get my hands on it. Your review intrigues me even more!

  18. oh, I think this is a very VERY good review and I disagree with you thinking you didn't give it justice. I just might agree on your cerebral but not heartfelt level but I still give it 5 stars.


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