This book by Julian Barnes won the Man Booker Prize in 2011. However, I hadn’t heard of this book or this author before, up until a few weeks ago when I read, following a recommendation, another book by Barnes, Levels of Life, in which he writes poignantly about grief following the sudden death of his wife of 30 years. Not only did I find it deeply moving, it was also extremely well written, with a grace and fluency that pointed to years of experience with writing. I did some research on Barnes and found that he is indeed an established writer with a career spanning over three decades with over 25 books. While three of his earlier novels had been shortlisted for the Booker prize, he finally won it in 2011 for The Sense of an Ending. Even more intriguingly, I found that this book has now been made into a movie—which has just been released—and that it is directed by an Indian director, Ritesh Batra, who made his directorial debut with the highly acclaimed movie, The Lunchbox. That moved The Sense of an Ending immediately to the top of my reading list, as I wanted to read it well before I saw—if I decided to—the movie.
The Sense of an Ending tells the story of a middle-aged man, Anthony, who has been living a relatively uneventful life so far—he is divorced but still has an amicable relationship with his ex-wife, he has a grown-up daughter who is married, he is retired but keeps himself occupied with some volunteer activities—when suddenly, his world is shaken up by “ghosts from the past.” Not literally—this is not a ghost story—but figuratively. It happens in the form of a mysterious legacy; the mother of his ex-girlfriend, Veronica, leaves him a small amount of money, but more importantly, the diary of his close childhood friend, Adrian, who committed suicide as a young man. Throughout his youth, Anthony always looked up to Adrian as someone who was a lot more intelligent, sophisticated, erudite, and well-read than him and his other two friends in their group of four, and Adrian’s suicide seemed to be, on the surface, a calculated high-minded move inspired by Albert Camus who famously said that suicide was the only true philosophical question. Adrian’s diary would give Anthony a better insight into his friend’s state of mind and possible shed some light on his decision to kill himself, and Anthony would really like to have it—it was left to him, after all.
But Adrian’s diary has fallen into the possession of Veronica, who was not only his ex-girlfriend, but who subsequently started going out with Adrian, and who, as far as Anthony knows, was still with Adrian when he killed himself. Anthony’s relationship with Veronica, when they were together, was complicated, and the fact that she took up with Adrian soon after they had broken up had upset Anthony so much that he had sent them an acrimonious letter, full of vitriol, at that time. Therefore, it is not altogether surprising that Veronica refuses to give him Adrian’s diary, despite the fact that Anthony is very ashamed of having written and send that letter all those years ago, and apologizes for it repeatedly when they now meet.
So how does it end? Is there a resolution, the “sense of an ending” as the title implies? Of course, I cannot give it away except to say that there was an ending, although it was extremely unexpected. From that perspective, the book is suspenseful and builds up the drama, making it hard to put down until you know what happens. It is also a relatively short book, and therefore you don’t have to wait too long to find out how it ends. The writing is masterful—concise and precise but without feeling rushed, taking the time to dwell on the main events in the story but not wasting time and words on things that don’t contribute to it.
That said, I did find the ending of the book too abrupt and a little too mysterious, to the extent that I actually had to do some online research to clarify what exactly had happened. There is eventually a revelation which provides the “sense of an ending,” but it leads to several unanswered questions and was therefore not very satisfying. Thus, while Julian Barnes’ talent as a writer is beyond question and I found The Sense of an Ending a good read, I would hesitate to give it my whole-hearted seal of approval.
The Sense of an Ending
Author: Julian Barnes
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: October 2011
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.