Thursday, February 14, 2019

Book 168: The Sense Of An Ending



"We live with such easy assumptions, don't we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it's all much odder than this. Who was it that said that memory is what we thought we'd forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn't act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it's not convenient—it's not useful—to believe this; it doesn't help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it."

Dates read: August 10-13, 2017

Rating: 8/10

Lists/Awards: Booker Prize, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, The New York Times bestseller

Like many siblings, my sister and I squabbled a lot growing up. One time, and I can't remember what she said or did that prompted it (if anything), but I was mad at her and I told her that her teeth were yellow. It wasn't even true, they were pretty much the same color as mine. Years later, I asked her why she usually smiled with her mouth closed in pictures, and she told me that she'd been self-conscious about the way her teeth looked ever since I said that to her. I apologized and told her I was just being a jerk, of course, but I've made an effort since she told me that to really think before I snap back at someone I'm upset with. You never know how the words you toss off without thinking can really impact someone's life.

Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending illustrates the same principle on a much more profound scale. The book tells the story of Tony Webster, a deeply ordinary person. He went to school, worked a normal office job, got married, had a kid, got divorced, and remained on good terms with his ex into their retirement years. But a mysterious bequest drags him back towards most tumultuous time of his life. As schoolboys, Tony and his friends absorbed into their ranks the new kid in town, Adrian. Adrian was different than them: smarter, more serious. The group starts to fracture after graduation, everyone going their own separate ways to different schools or workplaces. At university, Tony meets and starts dating Veronica.

It is this ultimately short-lived relationship that changes lives. Veronica is mysterious and aloof, and Tony has a hard time knowing where he stands with her. They get serious enough that she takes him home to meet her family, but the only one that's nice to him once he gets there is her mother. They break up shortly after that trip, and not a particularly long time later Adrian writes to Tony to tell him that he's started dating Veronica. Tony is hurt, and writes back angrily. Then he goes on an extended jaunt to America, and it's not until he gets back to England that he hears that Adrian has committed suicide. Tony is, of course, upset, but his life goes on fairly smoothly until that bequest arrives: Veronica's mother has passed and left him a small sum of money and Adrian's diary. The money gets to Tony, but the diary is with Veronica.

Tony's journey to try to understand why he was left anything at all and attempts to get the diary comprise the balance of this slim novel. In its less-than-200 pages, it explores powerful themes: the difference between what we chose to remember and the truth, the impossibility of taking back something that's been said, how we change even though we feel like the same person we've always been. Barnes is a talented writer, and reflects on these with clear, emotionally resonant language that puts into words things that we (or at least I) have thought about but never really been able to distill. The mystery behind it all keeps the plot moving forward, but it never feels tantalizing just to inspire page-turning. Rather, the interesting thing is how Tony reacts to each new twist.

Barnes does brilliant characterization work with Tony, by the time things are wrapping up he feels like an old friend who has a way of dropping wistful bon mots about life. Both Adrian himself and Margaret (Tony's ex-wife) likewise feel realized despite appearing relatively infrequently in the narrative. But Veronica, who winds up being a significant factor, never really came together for me. The "clues" she gives Tony are maddening...if she really doesn't want to engage with him, she could have avoided him entirely, but for her to make just enough contact with him to drop cryptic references doesn't make sense. Either tell him what's going on, because he clearly doesn't get it, or ignore him. Her remoteness and Tony's inability to comprehend her are one thing, but I can't understand her own motives at all, which took away from my enjoyment of the book. As for the final resolution itself, I'm not sure I go all the way there with it. That being said, this is a lovely and powerful book, and I'd recommend it very highly.

Tell me, blog friends...have you ever said something to someone that you wish you could take back?

One year ago, I was reading: Wonder Boys (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Zealot

Three years ago, I was reading: Ahab's Wife

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