March 19, 2014

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes


Light spoilers.

This Man Booker-winning novel is narrated by an old man who is looking back on his youth, his friendship with an unusual newcomer named Adrian, and his first big romance with a young woman named Veronica, an enigmatic siren from a wealthy family who puts the narrator, Tony, on edge. Tony torches his relationship with Veronica, who subsequently starts dating Adrian. 

The first half or three-quarters of this novel are really enjoyable, despite one tragic plot point. It's what I was expecting from a witty British novelist: wry tales of a young man's transition to adulthood, sprinkled with psychological and philosophical observations. All good. Maybe a little light for a book that received such critical acclaim.

Then the novel takes a turn. Tony, now an old man, receives a communique that sends him searching the past for answers. He reconnects with a bitter Veronica, who admittedly feels a bit like a tool employed by Barnes to slowly pay out answers; she knows what happened but just drives Tony around to odd places, lets him observe odd interactions, and angrily repeats, "You just don't get it. You never did."

What actually happened is not really as important as Tony's reevaluation of himself. In the first half of the book, he recalls those early events as he experienced them at the time, as a victim of Veronica's perverse cruelty and her family's condescension. Since then, he's had no reason to revisit his own perception of events, and so that narrative has stuck.

Now he does reevaluate. There's a mean-spirited letter he sent to Adrian and Veronica when they started dating, one that shocks him with its cruelty. There are memories that rise to contradict his certainty of Veronica's playful disdain toward him. A dozen little things that he now sees he interpreted in the most unflattering way possible—small moments of uncharity that ultimately had huge repercussions.

The Sense of an Ending reminded me of other works that explore the impact of a youthful, thoughtless mistake: A Separate Peace, by John Knowles, and Atonement, by Ian McEwan. Strangely enough, it also reminded me of an episode of 30 Rock in which Liz recalls how mean some girls were to her in high school and then, upon seeing them at a reunion, realizes that it was she who was the mean one. Such a common moment in later life, to realize what could have been if only you'd been less of an idiot. Add to this Barnes's beautiful structuring of motifs and themes, and those philosophical observations (e.g., guilt is feeling bad for one's actions; remorse is feeling bad for  actions that can now never be fixed or atoned for), and you have a novel that really deserved that Booker.

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