Review: Literary

Book Review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

This book, about memory and history and altering perception, is my favorite thing that I’ve read in a very long time. If you can trust my judgement in literature at all, I implore you to go read it without reading anything else about it, because this is a book that can only work through being read. If someone outlined the story to someone who’d never read it, I daresay they’d probably lose any inclination to read the book, and so be robbed of this experience without ever knowing what they missed.

If you need more than that, then very well. Here’s a proper review, as spoiler-free as I can manage.

I came across this book for the strangest of reasons. Yesterday, I took a whimsical look at this blog’s site analytics, and learned that a few days ago, I had a visitor who came to the site after googling “the sense of an ending storybooker blogger”. Naturally, this seemed to me like someone might be hoping to hear my book on some book called “The Sense of an Ending,” so I then did that very same search, to see what turned up.

What I found was this book. Was there someone out there who wanted to hear my opinion of this book? It felt like it.

I read nothing about it before reading the book. My curiosity was already alight. I simply checked that it had a few good reviews, and bought the Kindle book. I read it in one go and was floored. I have no idea why anyone would be searching for my review of this book in particular (if that even is what that search was looking for), but I thank providence for bringing me to this story.

This is a story told in two parts: fifty years of a life lived, and that life being reevaluated.

As such, the first part is very fast-paced. It begins with the main character Tony in secondary school, when a new boy, Adrian, joins his group of formerly three friends. Adrian fits right in with Tony and his upstart friends, who read and quote philosophers and think they know what is obviously best for the world, and consider themselves quite intellectual. Adrian’s intelligence, in fact, makes Tony and his friends’ former dialogues appear to be child’s play.

Though Adrian does not make the same subtly desperate attempts to fit in as the other members of their group, including Tony, he is the one that their group begins to revolve around. His is the approval that the other three crave; he is the pinnacle of intellectualism to which the others don’t even dare to aspire.

After secondary school, all members of this friend group disperse as they head out into the world. Tony’s life becomes narrower, focused on only his studies and his love life―in particular, Veronica: his first serious girlfriend through the second year of university.

We follow Tony through his life until he is in his sixties, when an unexpected turn of events gives him cause to go back and reevaluate the nature of this adolescent friendship and young romance. All of the philosophical discussions he and his friends had as adolescents about the nature of truth and history and culpability is suddenly a very real dilemma.

“History,” this book quotes twice, “is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

Such is the theme of this novel, in which a remarkable work of art illustrating the tragedies that one can have a hand in without knowing, as well as the way that one detail can completely shift perception of a series of events.

Let me be clear. I don’t endorse this book because it had a “clever, unpredictable twist.” Long before said “twist” was revealed, I had an inkling that that might be the case. So what took me by surprise was not the twist itself, but the way that everything we thought we knew could turn 180 degrees with the introduction of that twist.

This book achieves what I always aspire to do as a writer: to portray a situation without the story itself dictating who is good and who is evil, or who was right and who was wrong. Tony is simply human, and the way that he chooses to interpret events past are simply that: his interpretation, driven by what he needed to believe and feel at the time.

By the end of this story, my heart had broken for every single player in this mess that was their lives. For every single character, I had compassion. And at the same time, for every single character, I felt contempt―at their blindness, at their cowardice, at each party’s complicity in the tragedy that befell them all.

And so, I love this book. At this moment, still riding the high of a good book recently finished, I feel compelled to declare that I love it as much as I’m capable of loving a book.

I highly recommend it. If you happened, for some reason, to be debating between reading this book and my book, I’d push you toward this one. It’s an entirely different genre, and an entirely different sort of story, but what this author has done is exactly what I aim to do through writing. If I had to rate it on a scale of 10, I’d say it broke the scale and came out at 11.

If you have read this book and wish to discuss it, whether you liked it nor not, please contact me. I’m bursting to discuss it, but don’t want to spoil anything for anyone who hasn’t read it yet.

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