THE SENSE OF AN ENDING by Julian Barnes (Review)

“[T]he history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it’s the most deliquescent.” (p. 46) A spoiler-laden discussion of the ending of The Sense of an Ending follows.

The Sense of an Ending is the story of Tony Webster, a retired, divorced man in his sixties, remembering his life and musing about the slipperiness of memories. Early in the book, Tony’s school friend Adrian talks about one view of history as,“something happened.” What happened here: Adrian kills himself as a young man, soon after breaking up with Tony’s ex-girlfriend Veronica. About forty years later, Veronica’s mother Sarah bequeaths Adrian’s diary to Tony, but Tony’s ex-girlfriend refuses to give it to him.

There are two final twists to the story: (1) Tony misremembered or blocked out the level of hatred in his letter to Adrian and Veronica after they began dating, a letter in which Tony tells Adrian to seek out Sarah to learn the truth about Veronica; and (2) Adrian and Sarah end up having an affair and a child together.

I think Tony feeling guilty for Adrian’s affair and subsequent suicide is a bit of a stretch. He didn’t force them to have an affair. Should he have realized that Adrian had an affair with Sarah or that she had a child? I’m not sure he could have known. He wasn’t in close touch with his school friends after they left for college, and I don’t expect him to keep in touch with his ex-girlfriend either. I’m not sure why Veronica railed against Tony about not getting it: I’m not sure how he could have figured outt hat Adrian and Sarah had an affair and a child. Maybe he should have just asked Veronica why her mother had Adrian’s diary to bequeath to him in the first place. Maybe what Tony finally gets at the end of the novel is that he should have asked more questions. That seems to be the most satisfying reading for me.

It seems like a bit of a lame conclusion for such a big twist: Tony should have been more aware of the great unrest going on after he broke up with Veronica. It seems kind of slight compared to the final twists in a few other books with unreliable narrators, like Atonement by Ian McEwan or We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. Maybe it feels slight because this is a much shorter book. Anyway, I’m quibbling with the book because it is so good: good, but not perfect—but what book is?