The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of an Ending
Julian Barnes
© 2011

I recently reread The Sense of an Ending for a book club.  It won the Man Booker Prize in 2011, and I had read it then.  Before rereading it, I vaguely remembered the premise of the book and how it wrapped up.  I remembered reading it on a plane (but I have no recollection of where I was going).  I remembered some of the characters but not all of them.  I remembered a couple salient plot points but not in great detail.  In fact, I didn’t remember much about the book at all.  And I didn’t remember liking it a whole lot.  But I couldn’t have told you why.

Mind you, this first reading was only two years ago.  Memory is a bitch.  And, appropriately, that’s what the book is all about.

Author Julian Barnes described the book this way (in an NPR interview for this article/review): It’s about “[w]hat time does to memory and what memory does to time, how they interact. And it’s also about what happens to someone in later years when they discover that some of the certainties they’ve always relied on, certainties in their mind and memory … are beginning to be undermined.”

The Sense of an Ending reflects mostly on the accuracy and significance of memories—how much of our so-called memories are factual and how much are influenced by our imaginations and perception?  The book begins with the narrator, Tony, describing some of his memories, including “a shiny inner wrist,” “steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it,” and “bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door.”  The significance of these memories (which, at times, increases and changes) is revealed throughout the book.

Tony is in his sixties, retired, and divorced.  He receives a letter from a solicitor (one of the many reminders that this is a British book, along with “scepticism,” “oesophageal cancer,” and, of course, football), notifying him that Sarah Ford has died and has left him 500 pounds and two documents, a letter and a diary.  It takes him a moment to place Sarah Ford, but then he remembers that she was the mother of one of his first  girlfriends, Veronica, whom he hasn’t seen or heard from in over forty years.

He is confused by the bequest, especially when the money and the letter are delivered to him, but the diary is withheld by Veronica.  Tony takes a trip down memory lane, reviewing as best he can his relationship with Veronica and her mom and his group of friends at the time.  He tries to figure out what the diary reveals and why Mrs. Ford left it to him.

There’s a lot packed into this 163-page book.  Tony’s memories of and perspective toward certain events change due to distance, knowledge, and perception.  He realizes how unaware and self-centered he was in his youth and how little he has grown in adulthood.

Rating: 3.5/5  🛁

I vacillated between giving this book a 3.5 or a 4.  I decided on a 3.5 for a few reasons:

  1. I didn’t love it the first time I read it (I think that’s probably my fault, though.  Perhaps I didn’t read carefully enough the first time around?);
  2. I want to err on the side of conservatism when it comes to giving books ratings of 4 or higher (and this isn’t quite as good as, say, You Are Not a Stranger Here); and
  3. The end felt a little rushed.

But, in the book’s defense, it is on the very high end of 3.5.  It’s well-written.  And thought-provoking.  And SHORT (always a bonus!).

Who should read it?  Ann (i.e., people in my parents’ generation who like good books and don’t mind reading stuff that isn’t all sunshine and flowers).

Who shouldn’t read it? Youngsters (this is not one that someone in college, who still has the memory of elephant, would appreciate).




10 thoughts on “The Sense of an Ending

  1. This does sound interesting, particularly as this whole memory ‘thing’ has held great interest for me recently. I recently had this exchange with two 5th-grade classmates about JFK’s assasination (yes, age and memory): I describe the day. Then “B” describes the day with excruciting details about how “C” reacted upon hearing the news. “C” says, sorry I was in hospital having my appendix taken out. I was not there. “B”, in disbelief, essentially states that this renders this memory that he has held for 50 years and one he has repeated time and time again is now shattered and now wonders what the hell else never happened in his life. Sounds a little Rashomon like.

  2. Where the hell is autocorrect when you need it.

  3. OK. I will read it. Thanks.

  4. Finished the book. I thought it was very good — sad and almost profound. There is a incredible amount to chew on in those few pages. Thanks for the recommendation.

  5. Pingback: Our Souls at Night | I Know What You Should Read

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