BenML’s #CBR5 Review #01: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Image Pick up this book—it weighs little. At under 200 pages, I suppose novella would be an apt description, but crammed into its pages are endless glowing descriptions, painful moments, and tidbits of perfect clarity. The Sense of an Ending is riveting, cleverly meandering, and pretty damn good.

Told by a terribly unreliable narrator, Tony (or Anthony as his refined new friend Adrian calls him), from the later stages of his life, the story traces Tony’s days at secondary school to his golden years. He and his two best friends are a tight group, but a new student, Adrian, arrives and seamlessly melds into their crew. This group of four, prone to wearing their watches on the insides of their wrists and scoffing “That’s philosophically self-evident” in a half self-mocking, half desperate manner, finish their school year and head of in various directions. Three to university, one to his father’s business.

As time flows by and they drift apart, their lives carry on in mostly unremarkable ways. We stay with Tony through this section, only meeting up with the others during holiday reunions on breaks from school and within optimistically exchanged letters. Why Tony is telling this story becomes evident later. An emotionally devastating event, which Barnes carefully and tactfully leads the reader toward, shocks Tony and his friends and is the axis around which the story spins. This event and those deeply involved in it cause Tony to painfully reminisce and find something with which to anchor his current reality. His memory and observations serve him poorly, compelling him to dredge up past lovers and others.

I realize that in many ways this sounds corny, trite, and expected. The old “boy grows up, is hurt, looks back, remembers, yadda yadda yadda” story has been done before and will be done again. This is not that sort of book. The writing is meticulous, the action believable, and the story utterly stunning. It pulls the reader quickly from raucous moments of 60’s Britain to the current day, where old man Tony struggles with texting, has lunch with his ex-wife, and is driven at hurtling speeds around the London suburbs by a slightly bitchy but misunderstood college girlfriend. Barnes writes so adroitly the phrases seem to hum at moments. Like I said, the book is short, but dense as hell. I read it in one day and now my head hurts (in a reassuringly good way).

As this is my first #CBR (longtime Pajiba lurker, finally putting in a little effort), I’m not sure how to end this review… Recommended? Hell yes it is. If the numerous awards it won aren’t enough, take this review to heart. Settle in and get reading. You’ll be treated to lines like this throughout:

“We live in time—it holds us and moulds us—but I’ve never felt I understood it very well.”

That’s what the book really is—an examination of time, and how, when events are assayed from afar, it becomes grossly clear that time has warped our memories and spun us tales we never truly experienced.

FYI, I’ll likely post the rest of my reviews on my blog, benmitchelllewis.com, but I figured I’d throw the first one onto the group site.

2 thoughts on “BenML’s #CBR5 Review #01: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

  1. This was one of my favourite books of last year. If you’ve not read his debut, Metroland, it makes a great companion to Sense of an Ending. Plus Barnes is sooooo dreamy.

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