I want to start by saying that this book is of the kind that wakes up the half-trained literary scholar in me. But that’s to be expected of Booker-prize-winning novels.
To say that Tony, the main character and narrator of the story, is an unreliable narrator is equivalent to saying that George Eliot writes long novels. It’s obvious, and made so from the beginning. The question of this book isn’t acknowledging that Tony is unreliable, but rather understanding that we all are. As Adrian puts in in the first pages, “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.” (12) And that Tony is himself a historian is the greatest irony of this book.
By reading some reviews on Goodreads, I realized things that I didn’t before, namely the strain of detective stories. But there’s something else I noticed, too: he reminds me a bit of Humbert Humbert, especially through his calls to a jury. He has done something wrong (or he thinks he did) and we are asked to stand in judgement of his responsibility in the suicide of his friend Adrian.
I read the book in two sittings, the story haunting me in between. It’s the story of a lot of us haunted by books, wanting to live a life that’s worthy of a novel but always coming ruefully short of such expectations. In life, the chain of responsibility isn’t as obvious as in a novel. In life, you may never get it because there is no narrator to tell you what everyone thought and did. In life, there is no deus ex machina to deliver the missing document at the last second, the document that will explain everything.
The book leaves me with the sense of the uncertainty of life, the sense that our own point of view cannot consider every one our life has ever touched. The fact that Tony doesn’t get it (and still doesn’t, even after he actually understands) only mirrors the fact that we don’t, either, because we weren’t provided with all the relevant information.
Some reviews criticize the fact that other characters are rather flat. I don’t think this is actually a failure–I think it relates to Tony’s inability to see them as anything else but what he imagines them to be, even his ex-wife.
The Sense of an Ending has a lot to recommend it, besides the Booker prize. It’s short, quick-paced and eminently British in its vocabulary and attitude. It can definitely be read in a few short hours, but it will haunt you for much, much longer than that.
The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes
Jonathan Cape, 2011