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The Sense of an Ending
By Julian Barnes
Random House Canada, 160 pages, $25
‘What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you witnessed."
So begins British novelist Julian Barnes' (Flaubert's Parrot, Arthur & George) deeply discomfiting new book, a brief but potent work about memory, class, sex and the way we imperfectly bear witness to our own lives.
Longlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize, The Sense of an Ending is only 150 pages, but each of Barnes' meticulously written sentences bears lingering over, and the novella's impact has a visceral power.
Tony Webster, the story's unreliable narrator, was a sixth-form student when Adrian Finn joined his trio of rather pretentious friends, though he always remained somewhat at a remove. Serious and seriously clever, Adrian stood apart from the striving schoolboys who put on airs but had no idea who they wanted to be or what they believed in.
The four friends head off to university -- Adrian to Cambridge -- and Tony, studying history at Bristol, begins to date Veronica, a smart, superior girl with better taste and a better family than he.
This divide is made more evident when he visits her parents' home one weekend. He feels out of place and condescended to by her father and brother, but simpatico with her mother, who gives him a vague warning about Veronica's character.
Reviewers in England have already compared this novella to Ian McEwen's On Chesil Beach (2007), and it does delve into a similar period of English history where the dawning of the sexual revolution hadn't quite cast its light.
Tony's inexpert fumblings with Veronica -- infra-sex, he calls it -- are par for the course at the time, but that doesn't make them any less unsatisfying, and he casts her in the unflattering light of frigidity.
"But wasn't this the '60s? Yes, but only for some people, only in certain parts of the country."
Some time after he and Veronica break up, Tony receives a letter from Adrian telling him that he has begun to date her; Tony sends back a vitriolic missive informing the two of them "pretty much what I thought of their joint moral scruples."
Returning from six months abroad in the U.S., Tony is shocked to hear that Adrian has committed suicide at age 22, leaving a lengthy note explaining his philosophical reasons for "renouncing the gift no one asks for."
"There was practically a QED at the end," says Tony, with grudging admiration for Adrian's intellectual rigour.
Barnes now skips ahead to Tony's mid-60s. Divorced from his pragmatic, unmysterious wife, he is living a peaceable, dull life until he receives a letter from the estate of Veronica's mother, leaving him a small amount of money and two documents, one of which is Adrian's diary.
Barnes writes crime fiction under a pseudonym, and he imbues Tony's attempts to get to the bottom of this mysterious bequest with the tension of a detective novel.
What he discovers, however, is utterly unforeseen and shocking (here it also recalls another of McEwen's novels, Atonement), even with the clues provided. It forces the reader to re-evaluate everything that has gone before (to the point of re-reading entire passages).
More important, Barnes makes one look back on one's own life to ponder what parts of it have been fabrications, those necessary fictions created to cast ourselves in a better light, to spare ourselves the knowledge of our own shortcomings, short-sightedness and bad behaviour.
Jill Wilson is a Free Press copy editor.