A Booker prizewinner is not a natural choice for our bookclub. We’re a social bunch, and don’t want to be overwhelmed with worthiness. It may be no exaggeration to say that we chose Julian Barnes’ book The Sense of an Ending because it’s short.
But, oh my goodness, it packs a punch. And it doesn’t feel short, because I went back to the start when I finished to catch the clues I missed.
It’s primarily a meditation on the nature of personal history as we remember it. What we forget, what we use to define our stories, and how wrong our personal image of the past can be.
The narrator is Tony, whose misremembered past comes into greater focus when he is notified of an unexpected inheritance. Tony is a bit of a berk. Self satisfied, self involved, and completely out of touch. The inheritance comes from the mother of an ex-girlfriend. Why? There’s money and a diary. The diary of a former school friend, one greatly admired until he took up with the ex-girlfriend, Veronica. Tony is baffled and decides to investigate. Unfortunately, he doesn’t ‘get it’. He never does.
Veronica, now going by her second name, Mary, is angry. Raging, possibly damaged. The situation is complex, like algebra, but what bit is Tony’s fault? Any of it?
Tony had described Veronica to his wife, when he eventually spoke of her, in such a way that she is simply referred to as ‘the Fruitcake’. Was that representation fair? Why does Veronica/ Mary call the inheritance ‘blood money’? Was Tony always obsessive? Why doesn’t Tony ask more questions? What is the significance of all the biblical names? What is the root of the competition between Sarah and Veronica?
The book left me with many questions, much as looking at my own past does. Did that really happen that way? Did I not…? Was I there? I’m not yet as old as Tony, but Barnes makes it clear that there will always be multiple versions of even recent events and that a definitive ‘truth’ is impossible.
The book divides opinion: from ‘dull, dismal and poor plot’, to ‘engaging, challenging and a great read’. It’s about how unreliable memory (and narrators) can be. Recurring themes are history, great unrest and eggs. Overall, though, ‘something happened’.