I read this book some three months ago and was not going to say anything about it here on Fiction Quest because I have only praise to add to the many glowing reviews that were written the year it won the Man Booker. I changed my mind, however, because it is a novella in form and as such similar to the book I discussed most recently, Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriet Scott Chessman . I was thinking of how the intensity of a story may be enhanced by keeping it short. There is something irresistible to a writer in embellishing a story by adding details that are quirky or derived from a unique personal experience but such detail can lead to wanderings that build up so that its core ideas are smothered and there occurs the, can’t see the forest for the trees sort of thing. I see examples of that in my own writing and throughout this blog… in fact, I might be doing that now! However, sticking with the story and providing just enough detail to bring characters to life, describing the setting intelligibly and rolling out the narrative at a logical, satisfying pace, these are the skills that belong to the most accomplished artists such as Mr. Barnes whether the story is developed in long or short format.
The Sense of an Ending is about, Tony Webster, a middle-class Englishman, in the early years of his retirement. Unexpectedly, Tony became the beneficiary of a small inheritance from the mother of an old girlfriend, Veronica, who he dated during his undergraduate years and with whom he has had no contact since then. The inheritance includes a small sum of money and a diary written by a High School friend, Adrien Finn who dated and became Veronica’s lover after she and Tony broke up. Veronica did not share the same degree of ardour as Tony even after they became lovers. Tony was introduced to Veronica’s family, including her mother who he remembers as being playfully flirtatious with him despite their age difference. Adrien took his own life while he was still seeing Veronica. The news of this event was a shock to Tony and his friends as Adrien seemed to have a brilliant future ahead of him. So, Tony imagined the diary part of his inheritance would be a clue to the mystery of Adrien’s suicide. However, Veronica had the diary in her possession and refused to pass it over to Tony. This set Tony off on a quest to sort out his memories and try to distinguish what was true and what he had made up to suit the image of the person he imagined himself to be.
Tony tended to use a little creative thinking with respect to his past. Over the years of his marriage he shared stories about his old girlfriends with his wife (which is odd but perfectly consistent with Tony’s character). His wife, who is by this time his ex., gave nicknames to the old girlfriends and Veronica became known as ‘The Fruitcake’ meaning she was slightly manic. The description of Fruitcake was based on Tony’s unflattering descriptions of Veronica generated by his bruised ego because he felt she was always distracted when they were together and never took him seriously or thought highly of him as a lover. He felt she had toyed with his affections and that all the problems with their relationship were of her creation.
In Tony’s world everything is about Tony. He is on good terms with his ex-wife but there is no hope of their ever getting back together again. Tony tells Margaret all the details of the inheritance and the diary he cannot get his hands on. She finds his consternation endlessly amusing, a sort of Tony-centred sturm und drang. She quickly informs Tony that he is on his own in the solving of this mystery. So, Tony goes to the extreme of tracking Victoria down through lawyers and through her brother and confronting her in way that could almost be described as harassment. Tony never understands that his behaviour is outrageous and driven by his inherent narcissism. Although, there are times the author allows him to become philosophical. Tony offers this reflection to the reader on aging and memory at the beginning of Part II, page 59 of my copy:
… as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been. Even if you have assiduously kept records – in words, sound pictures – you may find that you have attended to the wrong kind of record keeping.
(To me the above sounds more like a comment by Julian Barnes than his protagonist, nonetheless…)
Tony keeps pressing Veronica to hand over the diary he is supposed to have inherited as a legacy. Instead she presents him with a photocopy of a letter he had addressed to both her and Adrian some forty years earlier when he realized Veronica had dumped him forever for his former friend. It is one of the nastiest pieces of vitriolic you could ever imagine. It’s fury and hurtful content surprises Tony all these years later. He immediately sees the content of the letter for what it is, a sort of hateful curse. He remembers writing the letter but it was something he had put out of his mind altogether and obviously something the present-day Tony would not have wanted to believe he was capable of doing. Eventually Tony is reduced to stalking Veronica in the hope of trying to piece together his past and the fragments of memory he carries around in his head. This plays out as both amusing and sad.
Despite being a short novel there is a lot to take in. I would advise reading it slowly and giving it a chance to unfold. It is worth the time spent watching the characters find their footing in this mire of memory and forgetfulness.