“The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes: a book review

Finally, an award-winner appealing to more than solely the scholarly writers, socialites, and hipsters of the reading community.

Winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2011, I’m surprised this poetic and heavy little book is not being talked about more considering its inclusion on many Must-Read lists of 2011—nationally and internationally. Included on these lists have been the likes of Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding”, Franzen’s “Freedom”, and Eugenides’ “The Marriage Plot.” While all of these novels are intelligent and technically sound, which will really stand the test of time? Only “The Sense of An Ending.

The others are uneven from cover to cover, arguably over-written, stumble over their own enigmatic styles, and in some cases are simply unremarkable. Self-aware, post-modern yarns put a particular idea (often abstractly) under a microscope, and if you have the patience to get to the last page and the final words, you might have the energy to comprehend and appreciate what you just read. They are books about “how” the story is told more than “what” the story is telling.

Luckily, Julian Barnes doesn’t do this like other best-sellers. If only they knew: life isn’t crafted to perfection. Too much wit and technical crafting is a death sentence to many readers’ enjoyment of the story. Connecting to those types of characters can be difficult. Many hyped literary books that are so critically-acclaimed are often not what you would call everyday books for everyday people.

“The Sense of An Ending” is that book however, saying huge things with simple sentences.

So what is it exactly about Barnes’ 163-page novel that earns such high praise? It’s about the human condition. Aging. Memory. Mistakes. Life, death, and things everyone can relate to. We all have our imperfect memories play tricks on us, which is exactly what this short novel touches on in a devastating way. Elegant and thought-provoking, we follow Tony Webster in London through his life. Book one, the teen years. Book two, his old age. It is thought-provoking, character-driven, and emotional. I doubt anyone considering themselves an adult could avoid connection with some aspects of this book. It’s one of those haunting books about suicide, philosophy, and relationships, guaranteed to echo in your head for days.

While the first part is better than the second, it is only slightly so, and I think the point of the change in tone is to reflect the now older narrator and his uncertainties. While not a perfect book, it’s darned close. This coming-of-age feels so much like a memoir it is almost doubtably fiction. Metaphorical and superior to many books from last year, it is well worth the time of anyone who grew up in the 60s or 70s, but is also relevant to other generations as well.


(for fans of Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day”)


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Filed under Book Reviews, Thoughts on Writing

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