Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Julian Barnes: The Sense of an Ending (2011)

Edition: Jonathan Cape, 2011
Review number: 1464

When The Sense of an Ending won the Man Booker Prize last year, I remember seeing a suggestion that this was more a belated recognition of Barnes' career than an award which was deserved by this specific novel. Length aside, I don't think that this is the case, as the The Sense of an Ending is an immensely enjoyable yet deeply felt novel which reminds me of the early works which I like best out of Barnes' output.

The Sense of an Ending tells of a school friendship, following by a gradual growing apart while the friends are at different universities and an end with the suicide of one of the young men. Then, in the second part, the survivor has the past brought back to life decades later when he is unexpectedly left a legacy, which includes the diary of the dead man. And so the narrator. now in his sixties, looks back on the events of his teens and his early twenties.

So this is a novel about friendship, memory, and death. But although it addresses these potentially weighty themes, it is often funny, especially in the first section, which is set at the school. A lot of this section prepares the way for the rest of the book, as when, for example, the boys are made to discuss the nature of history by their teacher, an anecdote which is also used to suggest that the narrator of the novel is not entirely reliable: he ends up deciding that history is the story told by the survivors, rather than, as is usually suggested, by the victors. The Sense of an Ending is about "closure", hence the title, but it also has a satisfying and somewhat unexpected ending itself.

The problem with The Sense of an Ending is how short it is, especially by modern standards. I can think of several acknowledged masterpieces - oddly, mainly French - which are no longer but 150 pages is very short in these days of word processors. However, the important thing to realise is that this story seems to fit the length (which is more a tribute to Barnes' craftsmanship than something innate to the plot ideas). There are no wasted words, and no feeling that there are elements which should be in the book but are missing - even though there is a gap of forty years between Parts One and Two. A longer version of the novel would clearly be possible, but would lack the focus which Barnes is able to bring to his chosen subject by his concentrated treatment of it.

Barnes is a writer who I've read and enjoyed sporadically over the years, and this is in my opinion one of his best - 9/10.

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