The Sense of an Ending.

I have a brief analysis of the Scott Feldman trade up for Insiders, as well as a column on farm systems rising and falling so far this year. Arizona prospect Archie Bradley was my guest on today’s Behind the Dish podcast.

Julian Barnes’ slim, incisive novel The Sense of an Ending is sneaky-brilliant, a typically understated British work that, in the tradition of Kazuo Ishiguro and Graham Greene, devastates you from the inside out through subtle reveals and imperceptible shifts in character. It won the Man Booker Prize in 2011 and is easily among the best post-2000 novels I’ve read. (It also comes in a deckle-edged paperback, which matters greatly to me as a captain of #TeamDeckleEdge.)

Tony Webster, the narrator of The Sense of an Ending, is in his sixties, divorced, in infrequent contact with his married daughter, when he receives an unexpected message from the past, a bequest that returns him into contact with two names from his university years – one still living, the other long deceased but instrumental to the story at hand. The first section, which almost works as a standalone novella, recounts his time at boarding school and university with his small group of friends and a standoffish, haughty girlfriend named Veronica. A weekend visit to her family, Tony and Veronica’s eventual breakup, and her subsequent affair with one of Tony’s friends all lead to wildly unanticipated consequences forty years down the road.

The book comprises a tragedy wrapped in a mystery. Barnes peels back the mystery bit by bit, as Tony discovers buried memories or gains small clues from family or friends that help him discover just what happened forty years ago to make a woman he barely knew include him in her will. This inclusion puts Tony on a collision course with Veronica, one he could avoid; instead, he chooses to steer directly into her path, repeatedly, even to the point where he questions his own emotions for Veronica, whether he seeks closure, or a rekindling of what was, by his own account, a pretty lousy affair in the first place.

The tragedy at the heart of the mystery is one Tony doesn’t fully grasp until the book’s end; as with the butler Stevens in Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Tony is introspective but emotionally stunted, unable to assess the effects of his actions on himself and on others until the time has long past. On seeing a letter he wrote forty years prior that has some bearing on the tragedy itself, he says:

Remorse, etymologically, is the act of biting again: that’s what the feeling does to you. Imagine the strength of the bite when I reread my words.

Yet, as with Briony in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Tony finds no opportunity for redemption here, and must move forward in the new reality of consequences that cannot be undone. The bite he delivered himself has come back around to him tenfold, which casts everything he’s done in his life – which adds up to less than he seems to think at first – in a new and unflattering light.

Unlike Atonement‘s Briony, who uses her memory to create a fiction for herself that is more tolerable than the truth (with unsatisfactory results), Tony himself questions the reliability of his own memories, thus opening the floor for readers to question his reliability as a narrator – whether he is whitewashing his own past, or aggrandizing his role in the tragedies of those around him. Has his mind altered his memories to create a history with which he can live? Isn’t that what the human brain does, as a protective mechanism? Or is this a symptom of Tony’s own arrested development, evident in his own descriptions of his boarding school and university years? Barnes offers no answers, which is good because I don’t believe any good answers exist, to these questions of the nature of memory and how we react when false or merely inaccurate memories collide with reality. For Tony, there is no avoiding what was done and what exists forty years later; there is only interpretation, and uncertain culpability.

Next up: I’ve got about 100 pages to go in Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son.


  1. Keith, have you read Barnes’ other stuff? I really enjoy his essays on both England and France, but in terms of novels, I loved “The History of the World in 101/2 Chapters” and “England, England”.

  2. Your deckle edge comment caused me to wonder, what is your position on e-readers? I love the convenience of the Kindle but I am conflicted because I feel like I’m contributing to the demise of bookstores and I love the tactile experience of reading. Thoughts?

  3. Good recommendation. He has a way with words and the story was gripping. The ending was awesome.