"The Sense of an Ending" by Julian Barnes

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Modern fiction comes in any number of structures, and I love the experimentation I’ve encountered. The Sense of an Ending doesn’t really have an unusual structure, being a confessional, but its unique and wrenching conclusion gives the rest of the book an entirely new and unexpected meaning. The revelations of the last page force one to reconsider much – all – of what has gone before in this remarkable book, which won the 2011 Man Booker Prize.

From beyond his sixtieth year, Londoner Tony Webster takes to reconsidering certain personal episodes from 40 years before, specifically, when he finished his secondary education and started at university. This reconsideration starts when he receives a surprise bequest from a onetime girlfriend’s mother. The legacy includes the diary of a long-dead friend, which for a variety reasons, he is very anxious to see and own. Except that the former girlfriend has it in her possession, and won’t give it up.

I’ve seen the term “Darcy” used to indicate a dashing, desirable leading man; it’s not a stretch to think that “Webster” – for Ending’s leading character – might become synonymous with clueless jerk. He and the girlfriend parted quite acrimoniously all those years ago, and the relationship never mended. Unfortunately Webster renews the acquaintance by politely nagging the long-ago girlfriend – Veronica – for his property. They meet a few times over this and other issues, and the one constant throughout these meetings is Webster’s denseness and insensitivity.

Author Julian Barnes balances his story’s needs with reader interest on a razor’s edge. He expounds on memory’s tricks and seeming subterfuges. He takes pains to establish the theme of the illusory nature of history: it’s the self-congratulatory spin of the victors and the desperate rationalizations of the vanquished. Victor or vanquished – which is Webster, and who can cast him in either of these roles – but himself? I was reminded of the flavor of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, in which we find another narrator-protagonist hopelessly out-of-the-loop with life.

The Sense of an Ending contains such perfection from the first word to the last. It’s an absolute clinic in how to write, but for all the pains Mr. Barnes took with its form, its point and true strength flow from its powerful emotional wallop. A stunner – from every angle I consider this book, it’s a stunner. An essential read for anyone interested in modern fiction.
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