This book stared at me, slim and effortlessly attractive, from the bookshelves of my favourite Manchester bookstore. I had heard the praise for writer Julian Barnes and everyone knows that The Sense of an Ending won the 2011 Man Booker Prize, right? So I opted to at least pick it up and read the inside book blurb.
This is a story weaved around the thin line that separates memories from actual events and the impact of our actions. An ambitious endeavour that sparked my curiosity, not just as a reader, but as a writer. After all, what dexterity and skill does it take to make such a massive impact with so few words.
Needless to say, the book came home with me. I started reading it that same day. Unfortunately, past the first amazing half page that teased and tickled me on the central theme of memory, the first few pages did little for me from the perspective of character development and story expectations. If it wasn’t for the poetic prose and impeccable style, I wouldn’t have come back to it.
Looking back, I couldn’t really identify with the characters in the first few pages; a clique of teenage grammar school pupils negotiating philosophical ideals, but in the end, its literary brilliance and unspoken promise of a story routed deep in our minds fascinated me and lured me back in.
I ended up reading it in a single sitting. What appeared to be a bland and unassuming story opening with little hold, turned into a few hours of reading bliss.
The novel is written in two parts. Part 1 is the description of the narrator’s early life, or at least his memories of that life. Its tone is sometimes nostalgic, sometimes sarcastic, but always packed with emotional depth and realism as I am taken through his story; the end of his school years and through university life, his friendship and loves, betrayal and death of his old friend.
By the end of part 1, the narrator, Tony, now a pensioner, has left all that behind him and is living a quiet life, a normal life, having accepted the past for what it is.
Still, I recall that in the opening page Tony has admitted to a certain fogginess regarding what memories are actually true and what aren’t. With the beginning of part 2, I expect the story will unfold, that something in his narration of part 1 isn’t right, but a mental block on something that happened differently. A twist of fate will bring it out maybe?
Sure enough, a letter from a solicitor informs him that his ex-girlfriend’s mother has bequeathed him money and the diary of his deceased school friend, although the latter never arrives. This raises questions and it makes him re-visit the past in a desperate attempt to regain the diary.
These events of the past, brought back into focus through his contact with his ex-girlfriend do nothing to clarify why he is in receipt of the payment, and why she won’t part with the diary. The author builds tension and sets a number of fuzzy spots as his stubborn narrator assumes the emotional depth and immaturity of his teenage years – although I do not see this until the end of the novel when all the pieces slot in.
The question I am faced with is this: Is the narrator villainised or is he the villain that keeps hold of repressed guilt and need for revenge on an old girlfriend? Has he any part to play in the demise and suicide of his old school friend?
The brevity of this book makes it a great example of the art of making every word count, and it is this that makes it so emotionally charged.
The novel ends up surprising me again, with an unexpected ending that re-enforces its ability to keep me focused and to turn the pages eager to find out what’s going on.
True to its promise, the conclusion provides not only the narrator and main character, but me, the reader, a sense of an ending, worthy of it’s 2011 Man Booker prize win.
Jonathan Cape, £12.99