Julian Barnes is an ironist, a post-modern fiction writer and literary critic who occasionally moonlights in the crime and mystery genre. The most straightforward of these excursions include his four thrillers featuring bisexual private detective Duffy, a series published under the pseudonym ‘Dan Kavanagh’ (named for his late wife, literary agent Pat Kavanagh, to whom his new book is dedicated). He has also combined his literary personas on occasion, perhaps most successfully in Arthur and George, his long, imaginative and almost completely successful novel about a real-life investigation conducted by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
That book was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2005 but lost – his latest however, The Sense of an Ending, just won that coveted award.
This year the Man Booker Prize judging committee was chaired by spy author and former Director-General of MI5, Dame Stella Rimington, which may explain a preponderance of selections that fall more or less within the mystery and suspense genre. Here is the complete shortlist, with links to those I have reviewed so far:
- Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
- Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch
- Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman
- The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
- The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
- Snowdrops by A D Miller
So, what is The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes actually about?
“History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
This epigram is quoted early in the book during a history lesson attended by the narrator while a teenager in school in the 1960s and is later repeated when he is in retirement, credited by his best friend to a French historian (of Barnes’ own invention). It serves to underline the central focus on the impact that unearthing the past can have on the present, especially if it confounds one’s recollections and expectations, but also on the problems associated with subjectivity in narration. And this, from the outset, is crucial to the thesis of this work – because, above all else, this is very much a story told in the first person …
The ambiguity of the title, which can be interpreted in several ways, is meant to alert us to the fact that although we are going to deal in mystery (there are two deaths, one seemingly trivial, one crucial), it is what underlies that search that really concerns us rather than the resolution. One should also note that the title is shared with a book of lectures by the critic Frank Kermode first published in the 1967 about theories of fiction, which proves to be more than apposite, temporally and philosophically. The literary allusion in the choice of title recalls the 1960s, the era of seismic changes in the social fabric, student riots, The Pill, the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK and seemingly a sexual revolution for middle class Europeans everywhere; but it also tells us that this is going to be about the search for closure and resolution and what primal forces motivate this – so it makes sense that we begin in uncertainty.
“… what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”
Our narrator remembers images and events from his past, but reminds us throughout that his recollections are subjective, partial, one-sided and inevitably filtered by the passage of time, which is the other main preoccupation of the narrative. As we are reminded in the quote above, on the very first page, and on virtually every other page thereafter … So, this is a book at heart about resolving mysteries and how one goes about doing this. We start the story, chronologically speaking, when Tony Webster was in the sixth form, shortly before leaving school and heading to University. Within his tight-knit group of friends comes Adrian Finn, the most serious, intellectually ambitious, academically able and philosophically inclined person Tony has or will ever meet – and the one he looks up to the most.
They have their first brush with violent emotion when one of their classmates is found dead, an apparent suicide after getting a girl ‘in trouble’, his sad epitaph a pathetically brief note saying sorry to his mother. Tony, Adrian and their other friends speculate on the nature of this fatal act but it is Adrian who finds an original way to put it in a context they can understand when he suggests that the reasons for the boy’s actions are likely to remain unknown, if they were to be the subject of academic research in the future. Their teacher says they should have more faith in the instincts and resources of historians, but in using the tragic case as a mere classroom experiment we find a clinical detachment in Adrian that is both impressive and if not exactly a little bit frightening then certainly disturbing. His mind clearly works in different ways from his contemporaries and marks him out for a great academic future. But looking back at past events will eventually haunt Tony.
When they go their separate ways to University, they vow to stay together but find it hard, in the age before texts and emails, to stay closely in touch. At University Tony becomes involved in a disastrous relationship with Veronica, though throughout his telling we are again warned that perhaps he is being too hard on her, that his depiction of her callous disregard for his feelings, her teasing unwillingness to go ‘all the way’, and her snobbishness may be more self-serving in the telling than factually accurate. We later learn that his anger is due not so much to their break-up, but the fact that she left him and started seeing Adrian shortly afterwards. And then comes a second death, another suicide, one that this time is much more personal and shocking and yet somehow both inexplicable and understandable in a time of social upheaval and revolutionary change, though our narrator isn’t too convinced that the Sixties really did swing, at least not him:
“Wasn’t this the Sixties? Yes, but only for some people, only in certain parts of the country.”
In the second half of the book we catch up with the narrator who is now retired, divorced, and contemplating his own mortality – and then Veronica re-enters his life after forty years with a small legacy from her mother and a diary, both of which he finds totally unexpected – this opens up a whole flood of emotions and partial recollections though Veronica seems more embittered than ever – her constant angry refrain to Tony ringing out through the book:
“You just don’t get it, do you?”
So, again we ask, what’s this book actually about? In its judicious and spare unfolding (it is just 150 pages long, with not one word wasted) it provides an acute analysis of an average man, or rather a man who considers himself to be average, a man with disappointments who none the less manages to keep going, his vivid return to the gaucheries and insecurities of his younger self brilliantly (and squirm inducingly) well caught. But there is also the clever plot, which greatly resembles a Ross Macdonald story in which we unpack a hidden family secret, albeit told with a precision, melancholy and keen understanding of social airs and graces and of the ebb and flow of social inclusion and exclusion, that sense of being a perpetual tourist even during your own life, that makes it read as if it had been written by Henry James or Edith Wharton. However, it is also an exercise in authorial unreliability, which on the one hand recalls the structure of LP Hartley’s The Go-Between, in which an old man recalls tragic events from his youth which he could not fully comprehend at the time and which he is now powerless to change, and on the others Ford Madox Ford’s classic The Good Soldier, another superbly stylish novel of manners and hidden passions that opens a brutal succession of locked doors to reveal a litany of cruel secrets behind the seemingly straightforward prose of its apparently transparent narrator.
This is a very fine novel, a beautifully and precisely articulated mystery story in the fullest sense of the word – there is an ending, a complex one, with an unforeseen twist that may induce a little head scratching, but which is ultimately a richly rewarding one. Highly recommended.