“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 or Asylum. And of course you can lots more reviews on Amazon.

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There are 49 comments

  1. Wonderful review, Andrew! I haven’t read much of Julian Barnes’ books – only bits and pieces of ‘A History of the world in 10 1/2 chapters’ and ‘Nothing to be frightened of’. From the little I have read, I have loved his work and I would love to read more. From your description, ‘The Sense of an Ending’ looks like a wonderful book. I will add it to my ‘TBR’ list. It is nice that it has been shortlisted for the Booker prize. I hope he gets fourth-time lucky! I loved your observation – “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.” I also loved your description of Julian Barnes’ signature 🙂 Thanks for this wonderful review!

  2. Julian Barnes is one of my favourite authors and has been since 1987 when I read Flaubert’s Parrot and thought it was the most amazing thing I’d ever come across. My main anecdote is that I met him once at a literary function in Highgate and was so star struck I could think of nothing to say. He is a very quiet, retiring person, and so we just hovered opposite one another (I was last in the queue to meet him) in dreadful embarrassed silence. Note to self: no more meeting icons, it doesn’t work out. Still love his books, though, and looking forward to reading this one. And lovely review, thank you.

  3. Like Litlove I really liked Flaubert’s Parrot and always wanted to read another Julian Barnes novel. Lizzy on Lizzy’s Literary Life reviewed it as well, a week ago and liked it a lot.
    I have always been fascinated by memory and how it works and how different we perceive time.
    I liked your comparison to To the Lighthouse. It’s great when a short book contains so much (I’m not much into long novels anyway).
    I agree, Wittgetsein is something to chew on. I browse it occasionally but then I always think how all the spiritual thinkers in the world seem to write in such simple prose and still say such profound things, and put the book aside again.
    I’m looking forward to reading this very soon.

  4. This is so strange….I kept reading the author’s name over and over and it didn’t click but after I read your review I thought, I’ve read a book by this writer, surely. The way you describe the characters, their life, their stories, it struck a chord…
    And it turns out I did! It was called “Pulse”, a collection of short stories that sits on my desk waiting to be reviewed, and I absolutely loved it! I even went looking for more of his books but the ones I saw didn’t quite capture my interest – your review solved my dilemma, I’m going to keep an eye out for this book.

  5. Thanks for the review, I am very curious to read it now and will log it as one to read on my Goodreads bookshelf. It sounds a little like McEwen’s “On Chesil Beach”, although perhaps a little less indulgent. What I liked about “On Chesil Beach” is the brevity of the story but the long lasting impact of the one night that changed both their lives forever. I always like to read stories which are told in flashback or from a vantage point which has allowed the character to reflect on their past.

    Will def pick this up !

  6. Thanks for all the comments on this. Vishy, this is definitely my favourite book by Julian Barnes. Everyone seems to love History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters but I wasn’t so keen on it. I haven’t read Nothing to be Frightened Of but may try it now – I am keen to try some more of his work. Have always been intrigued by Metroland as well. I’m glad I’m not the only person who was interested in the signature 🙂

    Litlove, oh dear, that sounds awkward! I am pretty shy, so always struggle to think of things to say to people I don’t know. Luckily I’m not famous enough for anyone to have been starstruck at any of my events, so no embarrassed silences 🙂 That’s a good anecdote! I haven’t read Flaubert’s Parrot but on that recommendation I think I will. I am building up quite a Julian Barnes list now.

    Nivedita, thanks, and no problem about the link – I had been thinking about reading the book before but it was your review that really decided me, so I am grateful to you 🙂

    Hi Caroline, I think you will like this book! Memory and the perception of time are huge themes of the novel, and there are some wonderful lines I wanted to quote, but had to stop myself – I could have written a very long post quoting half the book! I was certainly amazed by how full it felt for such a short book – when I saw it on the shelf in the bookshop I did think “This is it?” but afterwards I felt really satisfied. As for Wittgenstein, I gave up and sold the book on Amazon I’m afraid! There are too many good books out there to waste time on ones I can’t get through.

    Delia, that happens to me all the time! It’s the reason I started reviewing books on here – I kept finding myself thinking “I’m sure I’ve read something by him/her before” but not remembering. Sometimes I’d even start the same book again and be a few chapters in before it all came back to me! I’d heard about “Pulse” – sounds interesting. I am really getting spoilt for choice now in this comments section – maybe I’ll do a Julian Barnes marathon next month!?

    Hello Farzana, thanks for stopping by! I haven’t read ‘On Chesil Beach’, but yes, I found it fascinating how the narrator’s perspective changed so much with age – he was faithful in describing his youthful ideas and motivations but also commented on them as he went along, which was a very effective way of handling it.

  7. I’m a little confused… Do not get me wrong, I really enjoyed this book, even if it made me feel a sense of sadness of growing old and feeling unfulfilled c.. But the ending.. are we meant to get clarity like Tony does? Are we meant to see the pieces put together.. ? who is adrian (the living adrian) in relation to Tony? I’m really confused,.. Any insight anyone?

  8. I’m confused too. So much so that when I finished I turned to the internet to see if anyone could help me make sense of it. Of course I now realise no reviewer is going to risk giving away the ending, and I don’t want to either, at risk of spoiling the book for anyone else. That said, I’m just not sure I understand the ending… I did enjoy this novel, I read it in one greedy gulp. I’m working my way through the Booker shortlist and so far this and The Sisters Brothers have been excellent reads. And I thought there was much wonderful observation and poignant detail in Barnes’s bok. I just wonder if it isn’t a little bit too clever. At the risk of seeming like an idiot (which perhaps I am, as with a 3-month old baby I’m definitely not at my brightest right now) I would have like the threads to have been a little more clearly tied. I did love the interlinking of memory and history, and subjectivity – perhaps a feeling uncertainty at the end is the point, but that makes for a frustrating novel. I wonder if it will win. It’s very ‘Booker-y’. Thanks for your post, I enjoyed reading it. K

  9. Hi Ryan and Kate, welcome to the site and thanks for the comments!

    The ending was not my favourite part of the book either (strangely, given the title!). I didn’t talk about it in the review because, as Kate said, I didn’t want to spoil it. But now that we’re deep down in the comments section, I think it’s OK 🙂 If you’re reading this and don’t want to know the ending, look away now!

    To me, it felt like a bit of a twist for the sake of a twist, and I don’t think it was really necessary. Adrian Junior is Veronica’s sister, not her son, as Tony had assumed. Hmm, OK. So Adrian Senior had an affair of some kind with Veronica’s mum. Well, it explains why Veronica kept saying Tony didn’t get it, and also why her mother had Adrian’s diary and said he had been happy in his last few months. What it means for Tony, I suppose, is that he feels guilty because his spiteful letter somehow drove Adrian to Veronica’s mother, which led them to produce a son, which led to his suicide. The suggestion, then, is that Adrian’s suicide wasn’t an intellectual/philosophical decision after all, but a banal one on the same level as Robson’s suicide in their school days. As Tony says, “I looked at the chain of responsibility. I saw my initial in there.”

    To me it’s a bit of a stretch to see real responsibility in what Tony did. It’s true that if Tony hadn’t written the letter, perhaps Adrian would not have killed himself. But there’s also quite a chain of responsibility, and Adrian, Veronica and Veronica’s mum also have their own responsibility for what happened, much greater than Tony’s. All he said was “Consult the mother”. It never occurred to him that Adrian would end up sleeping with the mother and then killing himself, and I think it’s hard to assign moral responsibility for something when the chain of cause and effect has so many links in it.

    I think maybe you both felt confused because you were expecting something else? Or because you felt you’d missed something? I don’t think you have (or if you have, I did too!). Let me know if this helps, or if you had a different interpretation. And if anyone else has insights on the ending, do add to the discussion please!

    1. Hello. not sure if i am qualified to comment, im just a chap who read the book while on holiday recently, But I enjoyed the book so much that I would like to add my tuppence worth. Hope u dont mind…. This is definitely a book that benefits from a second reading, and luckily it is short enough to be able to easily do so. Like you, I also initially felt that the ending was slightly contrived, but I guess the reason that Barnes gives us this twist is that it adds to the books theme of “history is rarely as simple as it first appears”. The twist at the end makes us realise that all is not as we had originally thought. Many pages in the book are spent discussing the question “what is history”.. Indeed Tony’s account of his own youthful years is itself just an attempt to document his life based on a few flakey memories and a lot of missing information. The fact that Adrian cheated on V, with her own mother, which we only find out at the very end,shows just how much we have misunderstood the real course of those events during the whole of Tony’s narrative.. It clearly explains the antagonism that V must have always harboured towards Tony after their relationship broke up. Receiving his horribly spiteful letter must have felt like a dagger through her heart, and probably killed off her relationship with Adrian, maybe pushing him towards her Mum (who knows?). She loved him, despite his ’emotional cowardice’ and she even gave up her much prized virginity in order to try and keep him. Yes I know this is not the version of events that Tony gives us,, but read the book again, and I believe the real truth then leaps out at you. Tony’s version of events is just a very one-sided , almost selfish,account of history., And that is, of course,one of the major themes of the book itself. The truth is out there, we just have to search hard for it. ! What a great little book. Andy H.

  10. I too was very confused by the ending but felt that it was Tony who had slept with The Mother during that weekend. This was why he was so obsessed with interpretation and collaboration of the facts.

    Not completely sure this fits with all the facts but seems to make more sense somehow: Veronica’s anger, the mothers desire for him to read the diary.

    Excellent book but strange ending.

  11. Hi Tracy,

    Thanks for the comment! Wow, that’s really got me intrigued now – I’ll have to go back to the book now and read the ending again with that idea in mind. Honestly that never occurred to me, but maybe, like Tony, I just didn’t get it at all 🙂

    Did anyone else read it that way?

  12. I just got round to checking back – I enjoyed your reply. It’s nice to be able to discuss it as none of my friends have read it yet. Since I wrote before I’ve read a couple of the other nominees and this novel is starting to appeal to me more & more by comparison. Unlike the other three that I have read thus far (The Sisters Brothers, Jamrach’s Menagerie & Snowdrops) it seems to me that Julian Barnes is really trying to illuminate something mysterious and complex about the human condition – perception, memory and the subjectivity of our conscious thought – and I feel like much of this is coming from the perspective of his own life experience. So there’s a sort of emotional truth to it that gives it weight.

    You know, I think my real frustration was with the character of Veronica. I thought she was the mystery he was going to crack. Why was she always so grumpy & difficult. Why wouldn’t she sleep with him. And at the end, it turns out her only real purpose as a character was to lead him to the realisation that Adrian had slept with her mother & make him feel guilty about her blighted life. (I didnt read it that Tony had slept with the mother – I thought the purpose of all that & the business with the fried egg was just to establish her as a bit of a flirt with her daugher’s boyfriends – not sure I’ll have time to go back for a re-read, so let me know if you end up agreeing with Tracy.)

    Hope I’m not missing the point again. Another late sleepy post I’m afraid. K

  13. Hi Kate, I’m glad you checked back! I’m in the same situation as you, so have enjoyed talking about the book with you and others in this comments section. It may have been a late and sleepy post, but you made a lot of sense. There is a lot of depth to this book, quite an astonishing amount given that it’s definitely on the short side for a novel. I just read another of the shortlisted books, Half Blood Blues, and while the plot was much more compelling than this one, it didn’t really resonate as much with me. “Emotional truth” is a great way of putting it.

    Personally I didn’t mind that we didn’t really understand Veronica or have the mystery revealed. We were seeing her through Tony’s eyes, and he never really understood her even from the start. I think the only way her character could have been revealed would be for her to spell it out to him, and she wouldn’t have any reason to do that. But like you, I thought there was going to be more of a mystery cracked, and the ending left me feeling a little bit like “OK, that’s it?” I think maybe that’s why we’re trying to look for something else there. My interpretation of the fried egg scene was the same as yours, by the way, so I don’t think you’re missing the point, unless I am as well!

  14. Great review, you make me want to read it. I’d probably like it, I usually enjoy books about memory and time.
    I should read Flaubert’s Parrot too.

  15. Yes, I think you’d love it! Now that I know about your Proust enthusiasm, I can see that a book about memory and time would be interesting to you. I’ve heard great things about Flaubert’s Parrot before, and Caroline and litlove’s recommendations above certainly tipped the scales for me, so think I’ll be reading it quite soon.

  16. I just finished Half Blood Blues, too! But have you read Pigeon English? I think that has pipped Julian Barnes for my favourite of the six. I really loved it. Although I heard it got savaged on The Review programme, which really surprised me. I’m so intrigued to find out which book wins – this is the first time I’ve ever read the shortlist beforehand, and I think I’m lucky that four out of the six books have been fantastic. I’m not plugging my own writing or anything, but just in case you’re interested I wrote about the books for my book club blog here: http://whatkatyread.typepad.com/whatkatyread/
    Your blog’s great – you manage to read and write so much. I’ll definitely be back.

  17. Hi Kate

    Thanks for the link! I was really interested to read your reviews. I absolutely LOVED the cover you put up there – where did you find it? And why on earth are they not using it?! It’s so much better than the one they did end up using. I was going to leave a comment on your site but couldn’t find a way to do so. I’ve subscribed to your RSS feed anyway, so will read more.

    Haven’t got to Pigeon English yet, mostly because I’d heard mixed things about it – probably including that savaging you mention, although I can’t remember where it was. But based on your recommendation I might give it a go! Are you planning to post a review of it on your site?

  18. Have you read any of Barnes’ crime fiction Andrew? He wrote it under the name Dan Kavanagh and it’s actually rather good.

    In fact, I somewhat prefer his crime novels to his mainstream ones. What they have in common though is a sense of humour which is often overlooked. A sense of irony sometimes too.

  19. Yes, that cover is much nicer, huh. (I just Google imaged it.) I’m a book designer, so I’m always interested in that side of things. I think that was probably the hardback cover, or maybe the US edition. I did review Pigeon English: http://whatkatyread.typepad.com/whatkatyread/2011/10/the-2011-booker-prize-nominees-pigeon-english.html (though maybe you saw it already) – and also found a really beautiful cover for that novel that didn’t make it to paperback. I caught up with the Review Show on iplayer – actually it was Jamrach’s Menagerie they really laid into. It was only Germaine Greer that didn’t think much of Pigeon English. I would definitely recommend it – be interested to read what you make of it. And Germaine Greer might not have liked it, but it was the villagers of Comrie’s favourite (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b016bkrh). 🙂 K

  20. I never knew that, Max! I’m not generally a fan of crime fiction, but it would be really interesting to see what Julian Barnes does with it. Any particular recommendations?

    I liked your review of Pigeon English, Kate. Maybe I will read it after all! I certainly love being taken into a different world, and I think it would be difficult to write about that sort of thing convincingly, so am interested to see how it’s done!

  21. Hi Kate
    I hadn’t seen that review, so thanks for the link. It doesn’t make me feel defensive, because he doesn’t really point out major flaws in the book – his basic complaint is that the book feels average, which is fair enough as a personal reaction, but my reaction was very different. I felt that there was a lot of depth for such a short book, and I am thinking of re-reading it as well just to see how Julian Barnes accomplished that. Geoff Dyer’s review is fair – novels often move some people but not others, and if he didn’t have a strong reaction to it then that’s fine. HIs criticisms don’t seem specific enough to make me reassess my own reaction, though.

  22. Hey man —

    I just finished the book in one setting and have spent the last half-hour skimming reviews. One thought that I don’t think I’ve seen is that Tony was wrong all along about both Veronica and her mother. He speculates about Veronica’s damage and wonders whether there was unpleasantness with her father or brother.

    But it may be that Veronica’s mother is the ultimate villain in the book. What young Tony construed as her benign friendliness may have been a subtle but flirtatious overture from her. She ultimately seduced Adrian and initiated the events that led to his suicide, so I’m guessing she wasn’t a model of personal subtlety or judgment. Who knows what it might have been like for Veronica to have been raised by such a person; one of Tony’s core misunderstandings is attributing benevolence to the mother and manipulation to Veronica.

    Additionally, I’m not so confident that Tony can be absolved of moral responsibility. Whatever his intellect, Adrian seemed more delicate than the other friends; he obviously emphasized his own seriousness; he was himself from a broken family. There was no reason to doubt that his letter to Tony was written in good faith. He appears to have valued Tony’s friendship more than Tony valued his. In a different version of the world, a milder response from Tony might have kept Adrian’s situation with Veronica and her family from exploding. So might his continued presence in Adrian’s life. Whatever we think of young Tony’s emotional state and inexperience at the time, he flippantly discarded Adrian. I think that Tony earned his guilt.

    Also, while I enjoyed the book, a lot of the Geoff Dyer criticisms hit a chord with me. Barnes is pretty blunt and inelegant in pressing his themes and the problems of Tony’s unreliability. I appreciated the book more than Dyer, but some of his observations were on the mark.

    Enjoyed your take and the dialog in the comments. Best regards.

  23. Hi Jeff

    Glad you are enjoying the discussion, and thanks for a great addition to it!

    I see what you mean about the mother – there’s definitely a hint of flirtation there – but I am a bit more sympathetic towards her. It seems like a dysfunctional family on many levels, and Veronica’s father seems quite horrific. She reminded me of a captive somehow, desperate to escape in any way. I do take your point, though, about her culpability, and it’s interesting to imagine what it must have been like for Veronica to grow up in that household.

    I think you’re quite right that a milder response from Tony would probably have saved Adrian’s life. I’m still not convinced that this implies moral responsibility, however. When a disaster happens, there are often people who can look back and say, “If only I’d called him / left the house earlier / been home that night, etc etc, it would never have happened.” But if the person, acting with the knowledge they had at the time, didn’t do anything particularly terrible, then I don’t think they can be held responsible for terrible consequences. They’ll feel guilt, of course, as Tony does. But I look at the letter he wrote and think that in the same situation I’d probably have done something similar. So I find it quite difficult to blame him. Also I do think that he valued Adrian’s friendship very highly – that’s why he felt so betrayed when Adrian got together with Veronica, and was haunted by Adrian’s death for the rest of his life.

    Excellent, thought-provoking comments – thanks for stopping by! It’s been a while now since I read the book, so it’s great to be reminded of it and to think about it again.

  24. 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?

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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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  32. 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.

  33. I recently reread this book and was both moved and impressed, as I was the first time I read it. I am posting here, years after this discussion seems to have ended, to gather my own thoughts about the ambiguous ending.

    I think Veronica’s odd behavior at the end end of the book, and the conclusion of the story generally, can be explained quite simply by three considerations. First, Veronica was genuinely in love with Tony when they were young, something he either never recognized thanks to his own insecurities or never appreciated thanks to his narcissism. That seems apparent from the memories Tony had forgotten of her until near the end, which softened and humanized the caricature he had created in his mind to rationalize his own boorish behavior, such as the memory of her dancing happily in his room, and the passionate kiss on the second night of the weekend at her family home, and the hot chocolate she brought the night they watched the Severn Bore. All of those are sweet and touching markers of young love which he suppressed, presumably because he had indeed behaved like a “typical callow male” and broken up with her after they had finally slept together, as Tony himself suggests as a possible interpretation of events on page 44. Tony’s original sin in the novel wasn’t the letter that sent Adrian to Sarah, but his abandonment of Veronica, which sent her to Adrian and set the tragedy in motion.

    Second, and most important, Veronica didn’t know that Adrian2 was her former boyfriend’s son until she discovered his diary after her mother’s death, just a few months before the events of the novel. THAT is why she was so hostile to Tony when they reconnected. No doubt she had been traumatized all of her life by Adrian1’s suicide, which occurred shortly after she had been rejected by Tony, her first real love. That presumably explains the red ring she wore in place of a wedding band. She had been mourning Adrian all of her life, unable to comprehend why he had done what he did. Imagine her horror in discovering the truth so late in life. That is the only explanation for the intensity of her feelings in her interactions with Tony. If she had known the truth for 40 years she might still have been angry, but not irrationally so.

    Third, after discovering the truth about Adrian and her mother, Veronica assumed – incorrectly – that the same thing had happened with Tony. Why wouldn’t she in that emotional state? To Veronica that would have explained everything that happened in her youth, including Tony’s abandonment of her. That is why she characterized the bequest as “blood money,” which is paid to a victim.

    The more conspiratorial interpretations of vents posted by some of the other commenters are not necessary to understand what happened and in some cases are not justified by the text. In the arrogance of his youth Tony casually set in motion a chain of events that destroyed several lives, and he did so without even realizing it or ever appreciating how wrong he had been.

  34. Thank you, very helpful. Also, I think you got it dead right in your separate comment on the ending. Veronica’s resentment and hostility are unjustified on the basis of what we’re shown, unless your starting point is that Tony single handedly brought about Adrian’s death. Well, he didn’t, and anyway, claiming that he did completely contradicts the thrust of the (slightly pretentious) philosophising, namely that actions and their consequences resist simple explanation.
    I watched the film, made six years after the book’s publication, and wondered if its much happier ending was due to a change of by the author.

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