Let’s talk about story. And narration. And unreliable narrators and memory and aging. Each of these subjects is what Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is really about. The plot is really more of an excuse to examine these topics.
That’s not to say there is no plot or that the plot is no good. Our narrator is Tony Webster. He’s somewhere north of sixty now but he takes us back to his youth, specifically his school days in London where he met Adrian Finn. Adrian is the new boy at school and markedly different from the other boys, including Tony and his friends. Yet Adrian joins their little group. Adrian is smart and serious and even within their group of friends holds himself apart. We follow Tony to university in Bristol as he tells about his first relationship with a girl named Veronica. Like so many first relationships, this one is filled with confusion. Tony doesn’t know how Veronica really feels about him, nor is he sure how he feels about her. Their physical boundaries are unclear and become even more muddled when they finally break up.
This first part of the novel ends with two surprising events and then we move onto part two. We catch up to Tony’s life in the present day where he receives a letter from a lawyer. Someone unexpected has left him something unexpected in their will. (I know, that’s vague, but it’s better not to know before you start reading.) This causes Tony to get in touch with Veronica again after forty years and he begins to think back to the circumstances surrounding their relationship, a certain trip they took together, and what happened afterward.
Forty years later, Tony’s perspective slowly begins to change. He remembers some things that he had forgotten and he begins to question the accuracy of his own memories. This is the heart of the novel and Barnes has been showing us that from the first page:
…what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.
As Tony tells his own story, he admits that it may not be accurate. Recounting a conversation that took place in a classroom nearly fifty years before he admits, “Was this their exact exchange? Almost certainly not. Still, it is my best memory of their exchange.” After all, this is how the stories of our lives are written. Not with picture-perfect accuracy but with our memories doing the best they can. And sometimes we tell ourselves our own stories so much, over and over again, that we begin to believe a false version. Until someone or something comes along and sets the story straight or even tells us their version instead.
Even so, I had the feeling that Tony was an even more unreliable narrator than he was admitting to. His dislike of Veronica, even in the stories he tells of her while they were dating, is too strong. They were in a relationship – there has to have been something he liked about her. Yet, after forty years, he seems to have diminished her to only her flaws and he still doesn’t have enough distance from his own history to see her a little more clearly. It took me until close to the end of the novel, to pinpoint my discomfort with the character of Tony. As narrator, he offers a description of a woman seen from a car window, and it clicked for me. Tony’s attitudes towards women are continuously hateful. He views himself as basically a good guy (don’t we all?) and seems to believe that he is a victim of the women in his life. They do and act and he simply reacts. They are sly and manipulative and make things difficult for him. So is his version of Veronica and their history and her life true or is it the story Tony chooses to believe so that he can still feel good about himself?
I’ve only read one other novel by Barnes (Flaubert’s Parrot) and I found these two drastically different. The Sense of an Ending was a much faster, more fascinating read. It’s tightly written and will leave you uncomfortable but wanting more.