A Booker Prize Winner (Or Made the Short List): The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

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Now THIS is a good read!!!

I picked this up at Chapters a while back off the award-winners table, but never really gave it much attention. I am awful at this, but sometimes I write off award-winning books as being too dense or heavy for a nice, light read. I mean, come on, if they win something as big as the Man Booker Prize, chances are the plot isn’t simply girl meets boy, girl loves boy, they fight a little, but then live happily every after. You know the story has to have some depth and a new perspective on the ordinary, which sometimes takes me longer to wade through, because I want to understand every word of it. But this novella is actually incredible, and not nearly as daunting as I made it out to be. Ha, and at only 150 pages, I figured I could make it.

This novella is divided into two parts. The first chronicles Tony Webster’s journey through sixth form, his friendship with the brilliant mystery Adrian Finn, and the failure of his first relationship with fellow university student Veronica. The second part takes place forty years later, when Tony receives a solicitor’s letter informing him that he has been left Adrian’s diary in a will. Because of this, Tony is forced to examine his life, and analyze the accuracy of his youthful memories, as his relationship with Veronica is reopened, a relationship he had chosen to erase from the memories of his life. This book largely focuses on the importance of documentation because, as Tony repeatedly states, corroboration is vital for assessing the truthfulness of subjective memory.

What I found really interesting about this novella is the development of Tony as a character. While many of us seek to be unique and stand out, Tony accepts that he is ordinary, and in some cases it can be argued that he is satisfied with being so. He has led a successful life in that he had a good career with a good retirement, a good marriage with a good-natured divorce, and a daughter, Susie, whom he escorted into the domestic safety of marriage. All in all, his life has gone ok. But “I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded,” says Tony, because he knows his life should have been more than just ok. As the sense of his own ending begins to approach, Tony recognizes that the purpose of life is to help us come to terms with its consequent loss, i.e. life is meant to show us that it is not nearly as great and wonderful as we thought it would be when we were young.

Overall, this book is a wonderful rumination on memory, aging, and remorse, and one that I feel I cannot fully relate to yet. When reading the first part, I found it very easy to connect to Tony as he discussed how he believed his emotions should be like those of characters he read about in literature, and how he wondered if he had ever really been in love with Veronica. Those are emotions that make sense to me, because they are felt by all young people at some point. In youth, we map out our futures as being grand lives filled with adventure. However, when reading the second part, I was often left slightly confused, because the sense of my ending is still off in the distance. As a young adult who is still in my “I am invincible and the world is my oyster” phase, I have yet to have reflections on memory and aging of the same nature as those of Tony Webster. I definitely want to read this book again and again every few years, because I know it will be one of those books where I change my opinion of it and see something new in the story every time I read it.

Now for some nifty novella notes:

Opening Paragraph: 

I remember, in no particular order:

-a shiny inner wrist;

– steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;

– gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house;

– a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams;

– another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;

– bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door;

This last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.

What I Loved Most: The brevity of this novella in no way compromises the potency of the themes. It may be short, but every sentence is precious, and adds a deeper level of understanding.

What I Loved Least: This is not a critique of the novella itself, but rather a critique of novellas as a whole: their length. Admittedly, I love novellas for the powerful messages they can convey in such a limited number of pages, but this also means that each page and each sentence is all the more important, and should be read with a focused mind, ready to make connections. Unfortunately, I read this book in several choppy sittings, when it deserved a read in one sitting with a cup of hot chocolate perched on a nearby table.

Memorable Line:

History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.

Closing Paragraph:

There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest. 

Final Thoughts: Simply put, this is an amazing novel. There is no doubt in my mind why it won the 2011 Man Booker Prize, and I hope to re-read it again in years to come to better understand the second part, as Tony questions the veracity of his memories of his youth.

Next up is Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman for a book published in 2015!!!

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