The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

Tony Webster (that name did catch my attention, because it's straight out of Reggie Perrin) is in his 60's, with an amicable divorce behind him, and receives a letter from a solicitor which prompts him to recall events of his schooldays. Fallout from the solicitor's letter means that some of these recollections are revised, and the story that he thought he'd used to make sense of his life is challenged.

The film of this book came out recently, and the review of the film compared it with The End of the Affair, which I really liked. So I ordered the book from the library. When I went to collect it, the librarian said it was a great book. I said "Have you read The End of the Affair?" and she said it was one of her favourite novels, although she didn't immediately recognise it as being like this one. So my hopes were high.

But it was really good. The first part of the book is Tony's straight telling of his younger days, using the story that he has come to regard as his own. He remembers his first serious girlfriend Veronica, who went out with him for a year or so(?) before they split up, and Veronica then took up with Adrian, who had been one of Tony's closest friends. There was evidently some fairly serious emotional trauma here, but Tony seems to have got other it.

We then find out about the solicitor's letter, and details of the story that we've heard up until now are given a new perspective - for Tony and for the reader. And Tony sets out, in a rather obsessive way, to track down Veronica and work out what "really" happened.

What's interesting about the book is that Tony sort of admits to himself and to us that he's an unreliable narrator, and so although we get more details about what "really" happened, it's not clear whether we're getting the whole story, or whether Tony is deliberately not telling us the truth, or whether Tony himself is simply missing the true picture. And at the end of the book, although it sort of feels that Tony has an answer, it's not entirely satisfying to us because various elements of what's happened don't seem fully tied-up. But this doesn't happen in a cop-out way: it doesn't feel that Barnes has strewn red-herrings around and then not bothered to explain them; rather you get a very real sense that all the information you need is there, if only you could put it together in a way that Tony has failed to do. On a couple of occasions, Veronica says to Tony "you just don't get it do you?" and you feel for him, because you're struggling to work out what's going on, and wondering what you've missed.

After reading the book, I did spend a while thinking about what had happened, and when I looked online, found that loads of people have been through this process: there are some fairly elaborate theories to explain everything. My own view is that Barnes does know "what happened", and wrote the book in a way that is consistent with that, but with sufficient vagueness that it's not obvious, and that there other interpretations which might fit.

Tony has a habit, in the book, of "checking" that the reader is keeping up with him - e.g. he'll say something like "Memory does that though, don't you think?" which draws you in.

Tony himself talks about the problems of memory and history, and so the book partly is an illustration of the difficulty ever of knowing what "really" happened. But it's a really enjoyable read.

Completed : 19-January-2017 (audiobook)

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