“The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes

Update: In response to some of the comments on this review, I have written a newer post that explains the ending.

Cover of Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

I bought a signed copy at Highgate Bookshop, took it home and read it from cover to cover without stopping. That’s partly because it’s a short book (150 pages, with fairly large type and liberal use of white space) but also because it really drew me in and made me want to read more. The clever thing about the book is that much of it is quite abstract musing about time and history and memory, but there’s also a strong mystery at the core of it, a suicide of one of the main characters at a very young age. It’s a hard thing to understand, and makes you naturally want to find out more. Barnes then skilfully parcels out the information over the rest of the book, revealing just enough to keep you interested, before tying things up at the end.

Although it’s a short book, it felt to me like a whole novel, not a novella. It covers the whole lifespan of its narrator, Tony, from adolescence to old age, and never feels rushed. There are quite a few characters and all are fully drawn – even relatively minor ones like Tony’s girlfriend’s older brother feel quite real.

Barnes achieves this with a quite massive jump in the middle, skipping over the majority of Tony’s life in a few paragraphs and catapulting him from his early twenties into sudden old age. It reminded me of the “Time Passes” section of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and had a similar effect for me of highlighting how much of what we think is important is rendered utterly irrelevant by the passing of time. Forty years later, Tony has lost touch with his friends, married and divorced, had a career, a child, grandchildren. His younger self seems like a different person altogether – when he is presented with a spiteful letter he wrote after a breakup with his girlfriend, he is genuinely shaken: “My younger self had come back to shock my older self with what that self had been, or was, or was sometimes capable of being.”

Yet some things do remain the same across the decades. Tony’s need to understand his friend’s suicide is undimmed, and as soon as he is given some documents from the past that might explain things, he plunges straight back into the past again, even to the point of wanting to get back together with his old girlfriend Veronica. One of the documents is the friend’s diary, written in point form with highly philosophical language, like Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a book I failed to read or comprehend. I did recognise another quote from the book, though: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” The original explanation was that the friend killed himself because he had rationally thought through the nature of life and acted on the consequences. But the truth, we suspect, is more complex, more emotional, less intellectually pure, and the hints at a different conclusion are what keep us reading.

There’s so much in this short book – so much story, so much character, so many ideas. I could probably end up writing a review longer than the book itself if I explored every observation. Quicker and more efficient, I think, simply to recommend this book, and to keep it on my shelf and re-read frequently. I fully expect it to win the Booker, for which it has been shortlisted, although perhaps that’s unfair because I haven’t read the others on the list. Certainly if another book wins I’ll be certain to read it, because to better this one would be quite a feat.

By the way, for those of you who are interested, I can tell you that Julian Barnes’s signature is small, neat and entirely free of any kind of flourish. It looks as if he just wrote down his name in his normal handwriting. Maybe nobody cares, but I thought it was interesting!

For another review I wrote of a lesser-known Julian Barnes book, click here.

For more reviews of The Sense of an Ending, I can recommend Nivedita Barve, Asylum, or check out the 298 reviews on Amazon.

47 thoughts on ““The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes

  1. Hi

    First things first: Thanks for the review, it really “enlightened” me. 🙂

    I’ve read the book for my M.A. final examination in English and because it’s only going to take place at the end of July I don’t have the time to re-read. Which I’m certainly going to do because I think there is so much I couldn’t grasp when reading it for the first time.

    However, I think one of the major themes in addition to those already mentioned is growing older and what it means (to Tony or even generally speaking) to have had a satisfying or fulfilled life which also has to be connected to the notion of memory and perceiving facts from a certain (biased) point of view. I totally agree with your comment that you could end up writing a review longer than the book itself because the themes are pretty important ones to life.
    I also wonder if Tony would be that “obsessed” with finding out the “truth” about Adrian’s suicide if he thought he had a fulfilled type of life at the moment he learns about the will and the diary. This also comes with some theoretical theories on memory (I had to deal with when developing my thesis) which say that memories are not stable things, at each point of our life we reconstruct, rebuild, and it’s only the chain of certain events which then leads to a certain impression of a certain event in the past. I.e. the memory (of an event) is not an accurate representation of the event proper. Unfortunately, this makes things only more complicated in our brains, or at least in mine, because it’s only since I’ve done all that research that I’ve started doubting the impressions of some more or less crucial things that happened earlier on in my life. Tony on the other hand never doubts his impressions until he finds himself confronted with his own letter to Adrian (and Veronica, “the bitch”) which is stressed the more in his ex-wife’s utterances, for example calling Veronica “fruitcake”. He lived with this one certain picture of his past and the events, and when he confessed that relationship to his then still wife he kind of closed the case. The impression of his early life is frozen, not being reconstructed anymore which is mirrored by his ex, who wholly adopts his account of the events – consequently, they become some kind of absolute truth to them.
    Another theme is the formation of character and when it takes place. I think Tony says something like it’s different from genetics and it usually takes place between 20 and 30, and later on all your reactions and thoughts are based upon it. I wonder if he changes that opinion in the course of the story because he stops calling his ex wife providing her with new information and talking things over with her. But this could also be a change of habit, not of character. However, I have the impression of him becoming more and more introvert (not calling his ex, not being so sad anymore about his daughter not sending an email, etc.).

    What really bothers me is Veronica’s character because on the one hand I think her awkwardness is necessary for the plot and on the other hand I refuse to accept that because it’s just too simple. In some review I came across the idea that reading it for the first time you think of her as a bossy bitch and the second time you read it you see perceive her as a very shy, introverted girl with huge glasses in old-fashioned clothes, who doesn’t seem to be able to be part of any clique. They also said in that review it’s quite obvious that it’s the second interpretation you should go for. I can’t really picture her that way in my mind, but maybe I just have to reread. What do you think about that interpretation?

    I could go on like this for ages…

    Question: What was that gesture The Mother made, when Tony was leaving?? I don’t get it.

    1. Hi Natasa

      Thanks so much for the comment. I was on holiday, so apologies for the late reply. Your thoughts really added a lot to the post and helped me to understand the book better, so thank you! I particularly liked the point about Tony’s life being unfulfilled and leading to his obsession with Adrian. I do think there’s an element of trying to create drama in an empty life, and when you combine this with the observations on the instability of memory, it throws everything up in the air! Really you could doubt everything Tony says, and it’s difficult then to know where to stand. That’s what makes the book so interesting, and so difficult to pin down definitively.

      On Veronica’s character, I can’t really see the shy introvert, but then I only read the book once – maybe on the second reading that’ll come across! It’s an interesting interpretation but not one that really resonates with me right now.

      I read the mother’s gesture as an awkward goodbye. From memory I think it was at waist level, which may indicate it was a secret wave for him alone, not to be seen by anyone watching from the house. I’ve seen other reviewers describe it as a sexual gesture, but to me that seems unlikely – it would be quite crude to stand outside your house and make a sexual gesture, and the whole environment seems too repressed for something like that. So my interpretation would be secrecy and awkwardness. Any other ideas?

  2. For me the essence of the book began at the beginning with the references to the nature of history and to the friends ways of explaining the suicide of robson. This links later with the examination of the reason for Adrians own suicide particularly the idea that life is a gift which he rejected.
    Tony’s life is set out as lacking the philosophical depth of Adrian and Veronica and he feels this, although aware that his plainess and tidiness and routine ground him and help hime to survive. I wondere whether this contrast is to show that it is actually easioer to live like this and it is too hard for anyone cosumed by the philosophy of life to cope with the mundane demands of every day life ; especially a pram in the hall.
    I felt that Adrain and Robson were similar in not being able to cope.
    That Adrian should be drawn to Veronicas mother is suggested by the way she threw the egg in the bin; it showed her apartness from the rest of the family.
    The book was about exploring who we think we are ; at the time of our youth and later looking back on it. It is about how we come up with history.

  3. For me the essence of the book began at the beginning with the references to the nature of history and to the friends ways of explaining the suicide of Robson. This links later with the examination of the reason for Adrians own suicide particularly the idea that life is a gift which he rejected.
    Tony’s life is set out as lacking the philosophical depth of Adrian and Veronica and he feels this, although aware that his plainess and tidiness and routine ground him and help him to survive. I wonder whether this contrast is to show that it is actually easier to live like this and it is too hard for anyone consumed by the philosophy of life to cope with the mundane demands of every day life ; especially a pram in the hall.
    I felt that Adrian and Robson were similar in not being able to cope.
    That Adrian should be drawn to Veronica’s mother is suggested by the way she threw the egg in the bin; it showed her apartness from the rest of the family.
    The book was about exploring who we think we are ; at the time of our youth and later looking back on it. It is about how we come up with history.

  4. Hi. I first read “Sense of an Ending” a year ago and more naively than most, probably took Tony too much at his word, puzzled a bit, and promptly forgot all about it. Now I’ve just reread it and what I saw was an entirely different book, one I shan’t forget. Hope this isn’t too far out, but when I read the following from page 1, it rang a huge bell and I reached for my old Bartlett’s Quotations and it seemed to me a bit more than a coincidence.

    Barnes: “It takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down.”

    Proust: “The time which we have at our disposal every day is elastic, the passions that we feel expand it, those that we inspire contract it.”

    Unlike Proust who beautifully captured every nuance until you thought you knew people down to their bones, Barnes beautifully rejects that notion and convinces you that history, relationships, and people are in reality simply unknowable. It’s actually very profound.

  5. Thanks very much for a great review and the explanation you wrote later. I needed it and will now go off to book club feeling slightly superior! What a wonderfully spare writer- comes close to poetry many a time.

  6. I think Veronica’s behaviour towards Tony can be drawn parallel to how the discussion on WW1 has been described in the fist half of the book.I quote from the book “And so for some.he serbian gunman whose name is long gone from my memory,had 100% individual responsibility;take him out of the equation,and the war would never have happened.” Maybe Veronica’s anger at him is driven from the believe that if he would never have been “there” then this unfortunate series of events would never have taken place.
    One theory would be that if he didn’t sent that letter to Adrian,he would have never sought to talk to her mother.And hence there would have been no pregnancy and no suicide.
    Or it could be simply that if he never went to meet her family he wouldn’t have met his mother and listened to what she said about her own daughter.
    Or he wouldn’t have slept with her,conceived a child and ruin her life.But this doesn’t explain Adrian’s suicide.But maybe he may have just died for what he “stated” in that note to the coroner.And Tony is just “choosing” what to “adjust,embellish,make sly cuts” cause this is HIM telling HIS own life story.He then naturally concludes that Adrian died for a reason akin to Robson’s.

  7. I have gone through most posts on this book and hope I am not repeating someone else’s idea. Apologies if I am.
    I have read only a handful of books which make you feel suspended in a state of literary grace. For me this was one, whatever the flaws.
    At first I was bothered by the odd behaviour of Veronica at the end of the book. My interpretation after going through it again was that she saw the letter as a curse on them which had come true. Tony was responsible. How dare he not understand. What he cursed them with was quite specific. Having come true, all rational arguments would seem pointless.
    His idiotic talk in the car would have made anyone livid.

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  9. Certainly did not deserve the MB Prize. A lot of unexplained premises. The ones which have been explained are mostly logic less. No reason for why do the people behave the way they do. I was disappointed. Writing style is very good and keeps you bound to itself until the last page where you will be left heartbroken for having wasted your time.

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