Character-driven rather than plot-driven, Julian Barnes’ novella is nevertheless a compelling narrative and a meditation on memory and aging (or, as The Independent newspaper so succinctly critiqued, ‘a whodunit of memory and morality.’)
The plot, divided into two parts and narrated by everyman Tony Webster, is relatively straightforward.
One is set in the 1960s and recounts the formative relationships of Tony’s early life – ‘the three who became four’ in the final year of an all-boys school, university life and the gradual parting of the ways of the school friends. Of particular importance is the friendship between Tony and Adrian, the newest member of the quartet and, later, Veronica, Tony’s first serious girlfriend, he meets whilst studying at Bristol University.
But it is in Two that the meat of The Sense of an Ending comes to the fore. Now retired, a father, divorced and, whilst still on good terms with his ex-wife, Margaret, Tony is relatively content if somewhat lonely. He spends his days ‘pottering’ and volunteers as a librarian at the local hospital.
An unexpected bequest of money and the promise of a diary belonging to Adrian (who had committed suicide many years previously) open the doors to the revisiting of those school/university memories. But even more unexpectedly, the diary is held by Veronica and Tony is suddenly forced to look back at those brief years of One – and try to make sense of what happened then and what is happening now.
One rash act comes back to haunt him. Cause and effect, responsibility, blame, deceit, misunderstanding, guilt, remorse: it’s all there. And it is only in the final pages of The Sense of an Ending that it becomes shockingly clear to him just what the repercussions of that rash act were.
Taught, precise language along with an endeavour to make sense of things past and present result in a delicate, intricate yet eminently accessible novella. And it provided, after three previous shortlists, Julian Barnes the 2011 Man Booker Prize.