Wednesday, August 31, 2011
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes is a difficult book to review. Although I enjoyed reading it, I still feel somewhat in the dark about certain aspects of it. It has an apt title because for days, I was trying to make sense of not only the ending but the whole book. I was pleasantly surprised when one of the readers of my blog emailed me just to discuss it. Thank you Robert for your insights. I'm also enjoying the conversation going on at the comment section of Kevin from Canada's blog. Please do check it out if you've read the book. This is a novel that begs to be discussed.
Tony Webster is in his mid-sixties when he receives a letter from a lawyer with an unusual bequest from the mother of Veronica, an ex-girlfriend of his from 40 years before. He is left some money and the diary of his old school chum Adrian. Veronica makes it impossible for Tony to acquire the diary so what follows is Tony's recollection of that period of his life. Why did Adrian commit suicide shortly after hooking up with Veronica? Does Tony remember things accurately or has the passage of time blurred the truth?
After finishing The Sense of an Ending I wasn't sure if I liked it or not. After discussing it with others, I was able to understand it more. However, the more I analyzed it, the less I liked it. Although it is very well-written, I thought it was ultimately an unsatisfactory and frustrating read.
(Spoilers) The essence of the novel is how a flippant action can have severe repercussions. In this case, Tony's action of writing that letter to Adrian and Veronica wherein he condemns their relationship and predicts a lifetime of unhappiness for them. By some twist of fate, many of Tony's youthful conjectures came true. Tony at first recalled the letter as being brief and trivial. Later, Barnes brilliantly conveys the remorse Tony feels when confronted with a copy of the letter and how long, angry and vindictive it actually was. Nevertheless, I don't think Tony is to blame for what happened to Adrian and Veronica's family. He was a young man who was obviously hurt when he wrote the letter. Looking back, it's easy to lay the blame on him. But how many flippant actions have we ourselves done in the past? How do we know what effects they could have had?
I suppose it was Barnes' intention to deliberately leave the ending open to interpretation. However, I wasn't very happy with the double twist in the end. I think I would have liked this book more if the child turned out to be Veronica's and not her mother's. I still can't understand why Veronica felt so angry at Tony and why she blames him for something that happened 40 years ago. Somehow, if the child had been hers, it would have all made sense. Instead we are left wondering why Veronica still feels so bitter about it all.
While The Sense of an Ending is a good book and I'm glad I read it, it's not a great one because at least for me it left more questions than answers. Given the competition, I think it does deserve to be on the Man Booker shortlist but I'm not sure it deserves the prize. It would definitely make an excellent book club choice because it will generate a lot of discussion and divide readers. And if generating discussion is an important point for the Man Booker judges then I can see this novel being the winner.
If you have read the book, then can you please answer the following questions? From what I understood from the last few pages, Tony may have had the answers to these questions but chose not to share them with us.
Why did Veronica's mother leave the bequest to Tony?
What did Veronica mean by 'blood money'?
What did the carer mean by 'especially now?'
One reader commented that we, as readers, are not meant to know everything since we are seeing it all from Tony's point of view. He is left in the dark about a few things in the end. However, I think Tony should have pursued Veronica and her brother for more answers. It was frustrating that Tony, who in the book appeared to be of a curious nature, was happy to end his novel with too many open ended questions.
UPDATE: The Sense of an Ending won the Man Booker Prize for 2011. Read my latest thoughts on the book here.