Two or three weeks ago, I set off on a long train journey and to my horror I discovered that I had left both my Kindle and my current paper book at home. I nipped into W H Smiths and impulse-bought Julian Barnes’ ‘The Sense of an Ending’. More than anything else, it was the size of the thing – a mere 150 pages – that lead me to choose it; I wanted something that I knew I would have finished by the time I had completed the return leg of my journey, so that I could delve straight back into my on-the-go titles. Plus, according to the jacket, it had won the Man Booker Prize 2011. Bound to be the pocket-rocket of a book I needed!
But, just for fun, let’s say that I hadn’t been privy to the fact that ‘The Sense of an Ending’ had received one of the most prestigious prizes in contemporary English fiction writing. Let’s say I was going in blind – you know how they sometimes have to taste a dish on Masterchef and then identify the ingredients? Sort of like that. The book is broken up into three sections, and even by the end of the second I would still have sworn to you that I was reading something from the Adrian Mole canon (not helped by the fact that one of the central characters in this book is named Adrian), or David Nicholls’ latest offering. It has all of those sorts of ingredients – university life, students with strong views on philosophy and politics, girls, heady levels of testosterone, and a delightful moment where the main character, Tony, masturbates into a sink in his girlfriend’s parents’ house after reaching blue-balls-breaking-point.
It is only the final third of the book in which, quite suddenly, the themes of responsibility, judgement, introspection, blame – all of these heavy things – are really forced into the foreground as questions the narrator Tony asks of himself. These themes have always been there – present in the character of Adrian earlier in the book – but they are thrust upon you at this point in a way that was a little to… obvious (for my liking at least). It felt to me as Barnes was going for the big BANG of catching you off guard – and, like Tony, the reader should suddenly realise that they have some pretty serious questions to ask of themselves. But for me it was just too much of a juxtaposition from the lightness of the earlier pages, and I couldn’t really take it seriously. In fairness, this tonal transition also seems to be a reflection of the narrative perspective of the book; Tony is an old man recounting his life’s memories, and so the earlier episodes of his life are hazier, and more focused on the positive by design. But justifying it in this way doesn’t really reconcile my gut feelings.
Would recommend to:
Fearing that I have given the impression that I didn’t enjoy ‘The Sense of an Ending’ (and not wanting to undermine the taste of the Man Booker Prize panel too much), I should stress that it was still a decent read, and it’s saving grace was that it was so short. If you need something to fill an afternoon then I would still say give this one a whirl.
Anyone who fancies a mélange of the melodrama and classroom philosophy in Alan Bennett’s ‘The History Boys’ and the dysfunctionality of Adrian Mole.
I’ve finished this and want something similar:
If you want more of Julian Barnes, he is due to release his new book, ‘Levels of Life’… tomorrow, actually. This blog is two days old and so I’m not quite having pre-releases thrown at me just yet, but ‘Levels of Life’ does sound more promising to me than ‘The Sense of an Ending’ – from what I can gather, at its core is an exposition of his grief after the death of his wife. I’m fairly certain that I’ll be giving it a shot.
If you want something which takes the lighter side of this book and runs with it, try ‘Starter for Ten’ by David Nicholls. On the other hand, if you’d like some more philosophy dressed up in narrative (and I really, truly do not mean that in a disparaging way) then why not look into the work of Paulo Coelho – whose name I can never spell correctly without several glances over at the spines on my bookcase. He really is one of the masters of the genre.
What do you think?
Were you more impressed by this prize-winner than I was? Have I missed the point entirely? Or did you have even less patience with ‘The Sense of an Ending’, and now need a good vent. Either way, I would love to hear your thoughts and recommendations in the comments below.
Happy reading! x