In his Booker Prize winner from 2011, Julian Barnes plays with notions of memory and history. When the narrator Tony receives an unexpected bequest, he is motivated to reexamine his past, specifically, his friendship with his brilliant schoolmate Adrian, and his youthful affair with the demanding Veronica. In doing so, he discovers that his neat memories of events are far from true, and that the consequences of these two relationships are still playing themselves out in the present.
Barnes writes easily, and Tony’s voice – the disappointed, resigned older man looking back over his youth – flows well. But it isn’t enough for a book to flow well: it has to grip and engage its readers, and I’m afraid that is where The Sense of an Ending fell down for me. It is a short book: both plot and characterisation are, by necessity, pared down to the essentials. However, this means that the characters sometimes tremble on the brink of two-dimensionality.
The only time I felt that these people were rounded and solid was during the school scenes, with their cod-intellectualism and flowery debates about history, reality and morality – scenes which felt as if they’d been written under the influence of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. After this, the characterisation became more anaemic. I had particular difficulty with the modern-day relationship between Tony and Veronica, which I found implausible. Her changing moods may be intended to show her complexity, but they didn’t ring true. Her actions felt like plot devices rather than the logical outcome of a convincing personality, and although Tony’s narration told me that she was fascinating, I actually found her irritating.
The end of the book was also unsatisfying. Barnes decides to tie everything up via a final twist, crammed into the final pages and insufficiently explained, compared to the way that comparatively minor events are analysed earlier in the book. Perhaps this is a gesture towards the deductive intelligence he expects of his readers.
I don’t want to be too negative. It was a perfectly competent and diverting book, and I happily devoured it in the course of an afternoon. But it left no imprint on my soul at all. Considering the acclaim of the Booker judges and the general popularity of the book, I can only assume I’ve missed something – and I’m sorry, because the concept was promising, but the execution a little disappointing.