Reminded of that old saying about judging a book by its cover, one can also say that a book should never be evaluated simply because of its length, especially when the said book runs less than 200 pages. But for British author Julian Barnes, his shortest book also happens to be his most accomplished as “The Sense of an Ending: A Novel” (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2011, 163 pages) received the 2011 Man Booker Prize.
In fact, the novel’s length belies the actual amount of time that occurs in it. Barnes’ 11th novel, “Ending” revolves around Anthony “Tony” Webster, a smart, easily wounded man who also has a tendency to over-think everything. We first meet him in school, when he meets Adrian Finn, an ironic, subtle boy who becomes his friend. After school, Tony breaks up with his girlfriend, the enigmatic Veronica Ford, and soon Adrian starts dating Veronica, something that, despite his protestations, hurts Tony deeply. His feelings become further confused when Adrian kills himself.
“Ending” then makes a startling narrative jump of 40 years. Now contentedly divorced and on his own, Tony finds his relatively idyllic isolation shattered when a letter arrives from, of all people, Veronica’s mother, who has left him 500 pounds, a strange letter and, even stranger, what was supposed to be Adrian’s diary. Stranger than that, Veronica has kept the diary and refuses to give it to Tony.
This leads Tony into a very uncomfortable but fascinating journey of remembrance as he sets out to find out the truth regarding the diary. Along the way, he must face Veronica once again and all kinds of unwelcome truths rise from their emotional graves. In particular, Tony must solve a mystery that lies at the heart of Mrs. Ford’s letter and perhaps even the death of Adrian. It won’t be easy. “You still don’t get it,” Veronica writes him. “You never did, and you never will. So stop even trying.” Tony, being Tony, can’t help himself.
The brief entirety of “Ending” is presented in Barnes’ poetic, measured prose, enabling the reader to immediately get a feel for Tony’s life, what amounts to a cage of regret and speculation after finding his own life so mundane. This is one of the novel’s themes, the nature and limits of personal memory: “History isn’t the lies of the victors,” Tony says. “I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.”
The other major theme? The damage we do to each other. “I certainly believe we all suffer damage, one way or another,” Tony ponders. “Some admit the damage, and try to mitigate it; some spend their lives trying to help others who are damaged; and then there are those whose main concern is to avoid further damage to themselves, at whatever cost. And those are the ones who are ruthless, and the others to be careful of.”
As Tony gets sucked into his own need to find meaning into what his life has turned out to be, the reader gets dragged into his almost obsessive search for the answer behind the letter, the diary and a mysterious spectacled man Veronica shows him from afar. The answers lie waiting close to the ending of “Ending,” and these revelations are startling, disturbing and perfectly placed. Will Tony find the answers to his bristling questions and, if he does, will he find himself redeemed by them, or made a lesser man?
The novel’s jacket itself recommends that the reader take in the events of Tony’s reviewed life in one sitting and many will be forced to do just that once they begin reading. Lovely and deceptively gut-wrenching at the same time, Julian Barnes’ “The Sense of an Ending” is an unremittingly sad and smart visitation of a middle-age man’s elusive hopes and evident regrets, a tragic valedictory on a complicated life that we will all seek to avoid but may not escape in the end no matter how hard we try.
Available in hardcover in National Book Store.