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“The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes
“As the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been” (65). I could have chosen a dozen other quotes to begin this review of Barnes brilliant novella, but this is the one that seems to encapsulate the work best. It is an intense yet eloquent examination of how we write our histories and just how far reaching the consequences of a moment of anger can be. The protagonist Tony Webster is a mild-mannered, divorced man who is complacently settled into the waning years of his life until he receives a lawyer’s letter informing him of an unexpected inheritance that forces him to reexamine his youth and the suicide of a close friend. This leads him to question the accuracy of his memories and to realize just how much he had misunderstood, resulting in a harsh re-evaluation of his passive approach to life.
Focusing on the two most influential people from his youth, Adrian—an inquisitive, brilliant, yet melancholy schoolmate—and Veronica—a difficult, enigmatic girl with whom he had a brief affair--Anthony must come to terms with the “love triangle” aspect of their relationship that he has previously refused to acknowledge. He undertakes a dogged search through a past suddenly turned murky. He finds that “the history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it’s the most deliquescent” (66). Forced now to consider just how much of his past history he’s failed to face up to, he is also forced to consider to what degree his own moral failings affected others.
“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” (88). What at first seems like a polite meditation on childhood and memory, “The Sense of an Ending” leaves the reader asking difficult questions about how often we strive to paint ourselves in the best possible light. Barnes has written an exquisite meditation on aging, memory, and regret that is so compelling and stunning that it is easily read in one sitting. Filled with his trademark precision, dexterity, and insight, Barnes’ latest work certainly deserves the accolades it has received, among them the distinguished 2011 Man Booker Prize for Fiction.