Well, one book review officially down! I finished The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes with a strong feeling of satisfaction. I was impressed with the emotional impact such a short novel had on me. This is definitely a book that can be easily finished in a day, so I thought it was a great way to get this reading challenge rolling. I also wanted to start with one of the contemporary books on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list. Would I consider this one a modern classic? There’s something exciting about finding a new author, discovering a fresh voice. Prior to this read, I knew absolutely nothing about Julian Barnes. He has another book on the 1001 list, and after finishing this novel, I would be willing to attempt the other one.
The protagonist of this novel is Tony Webster, a middle-aged man set in his ways who has to relive a painful time in his youth when he comes back into contact with an ex-girlfriend Veronica. Let me stress right now that this is not a love story, and I wouldn’t necessarily say the book has a happy ending. There is a major twist at the end which I didn’t see coming. Without giving anything away, I will say that this isn’t a book where things become all neat, tidy, and happy at the end. As I closed the book, I was still thinking about what this author was saying, which is probably the highest praise I can give. It is a fascinating look at history, and how we don’t necessarily remember the past so much as construct it.
This is a story about memory, or more specifically, the malleability of memory. Throughout the book, Tony questions his memories of the events in his youth and realizes that details may not be exactly as he remembers them. I think what Barnes is saying is that we often alter our own memories to suit our needs at the time. Tony had spent his entire adult life looking back on Veronica as an evil person or a fruitcake. As the plot unfolds and certain forgotten memories come to light, he realizes he may have been wrong his whole life. However, even these memories come into question so we never know what to fully believe. This is summed up well in the following quote: “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
The idea of memory also comes into play in regards to the damage we suffer in life. Here’s my other favorite passage:
“I certainly believe we all suffer damage, one way or another. How could we not, except in a world of perfect parents, siblings, neighbours, companions? And then there is, the question, on which so much depends, of how we react to the damage: whether we admit or repress it, and how this affects our dealings with others. 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 ones to be careful of.”
After reading this novel, I thought about this dual relationship between damage and memory. I also thought about the concept of responsibility, as Tony realizes at the end that he held some responsibility for the events that unfolded. We tend to look at life in terms of a bigger picture, the forest if you will. However, what life is essentially about are those small moments, those tiny ripples that lead those bigger moments. When we look back on moments in our lives, we may remember them in certain ways. Perception is reality. However, age has a way of making us look at those events differently. I don’t know if Tony got the closure he was wanting, but he did reexamine his place in the world.
This seems like a good place to close. Time to move on to the next…..
“It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.”