“The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes

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“What is History?”

“History is the lies of the victors.”

“Well, as long as you remember that it is also the self-delusion of the defeated.”

I’m a bit late, I must admit, but here are my thoughts on my last October read. Looking back at this past month worth of books (and the first month I’ve consistently put my thoughts on paper – well, keyboard – on this blog!) , I realised I’ve been unwittingly following a common theme in my reading: stories about the way we tell stories. And if I had to rank them from the most in tune with this theme to the least, The Sense of An Ending would take the gold. It is a short wonderful book that is best appreciated if read in one sitting. I read it over the course of two days and was literally sucked into this novel.

The premise of the book is quite simple: our protagonist, Tony, has had a pretty normal and even dull life – a rewarding career, a loving marriage that turned into an amicable divorce, a nice and healthy daughter who sometimes calls. Until one day his past comes a-knocking, in the form of some shocking revelations about his old friendship group. Through resurfacing memories, incomplete documents and frustrating encounters, Tony must try to patch up his version of the past in search for truth. Yet the fundamental question at the heart of the book is one humanity has been trying to answer to for centuries: what is truth?

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This book is first and foremost a thrilling enquiry of the human mind and I believe the quote at the very beginning of this article can be taken as a key to interpret the whole novel. We read about Tony’s life from Tony’s own point of view, and he is, as we soon learn, an extremely unreliable narrator. He forgets bits of his story – or maybe expunges them to suit his story – and even the bits he remembers are not always correct or correctly interpreted. We might find out later on that a letter he remembered as being polite was actually scathingly rude, or a feeling he thought was there, was actually not.

Tony, like a carefulsculptor, chiselled his memories to fit the image he decided to adopt for himself, the mask he decided to wear. However, when faced with other people’s versions of that same story, he’s taken a back. He’s decided to take the reader on a journey through his past, yet he himself seems unable to find his way around. So in order to understand the novel and Tony’s account of his own past, the reader must, at the same time, try to understand Tony’s mind and judge and interpret what they read through that (sometimes distorted) lens.

“That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.”

I loved this book for its poetic strength, Julian Barnes’ delightful prose and the whodunnit-like suspense that keeps the reader glued to the page up until the very last line.

I only have two minor critiques. The first one is that this novel’s meta-literary self-obsession becomes almost solipsistic at times. There were times where I’d hoped for the narrator to cut the chase and get to the next plot twist or the next revelation. The novel is well paced overall, but I think it could do with a little bit of a trim here and there: more action, less celebratory mind wanking in the form of inspirational quotes.

My second mild critique is that the ending (I won’t give away any spoilers so feel free to read on) is so unexpected it seems ill fitting in the rest of the story. The whole book builds up to it and you can’t help it but make your own assumptions about what the truth is. When you get to the very last page, you learn, together with Tony, how all puzzle pieces (or at least most of them) fit together. It takes your brain a few minutes to piece everything together (it even took me a few re-reads of the final pages and a cheeky Google search, just to be extra sure), and when you do, you struggle to make this last bit of information fit with the rest of the book.

I’m still not sure what to make of the ending, but what I’m sure is that this novel is an exceptional read and it made me add Julian Barnes to the list of authors I want to catch up on!

As usual, do let me know if you’ve read it (and if you’ve understood the ending!).

This is M signing out for now ✨

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