Self-Delusions of the Defeated

This is my review of The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.

You may ask how 150 pages can justify the Man Booker Prize. This may be on the basis of "less is more", and the author's ability to condense so much insight and provoking thought into a novella. The award may have been for the concise skill of his prose compared to the other less experienced writers on the long-list.

Retired and in his sixties, Tony Webster has played safe, telling himself he was being mature when in fact he was just careful, and missing out on life in the process. The first part of the book recalls his friendship with the precociously brilliant schoolmate Adrian, and his attraction to the enigmatic Veronica. I like the portrayal of the more innocent and sexually uptight world of the 1960s which were in some ways less "Swinging" than people may now imagine. The "too-clever-by-half banter of Tony's public school sixth form is a little pretentious, but may be realistic.

The second part becomes more of a psychological thriller in which Tony tries to explore and come to terms with the repercussions of his triangular relationship with Adrian and Veronica. Barnes arouses a strong sense of tension and expectation but, although I did not manage to guess the denouement, the double twist at the end was something of a letdown. I was too unmoved by the characters to care about them enough.

For me, this book is about how time may distort memories, how in both history and private life, people may delude themselves to make life more bearable. It is also about how, as we approach the end of life, we tend to assess how we have lived – to this extent perhaps it will mean most to older people who have known irrevocable disappointment.

You need to read this book twice to grasp the care with which it is constructed and the full significance of many sentences, but I found the denouement did not satisfy me enough to want to do this. There is a rich field of debate as to what really happened to Adrian and Veronica and why, together with an assessment of the degree of Tony's guilt. I agree with those who argue that Tony's actions are never bad enough for him to bear a heavy blame, but perhaps it is one of the main points that quite trivial events may have disproportionately serious effects.

It could make a good A Level text, both as regards how the facts are revealed, and what they mean.

I would say this deserves praise for quality of prose and ideas, but loses its edge through a needlessly rather weak plotline.

Comment Comment | Permalink

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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