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Cannonball Read IV: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

By A-schaef | Book Reviews | December 12, 2012 | Comments ()


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Buy this book. Read it. It's short, it's not tough to read, and it is absolutely god damn magnificent. I don't think I've loved a book this much since the first time I read Never Let Me Go. It's just beautiful, and absolutely deserving of the Man Booker Prize it was awarded.

The Sense of an Ending follows Tony Webster. In school, he and his two friends eventually adopt a new student named Adrian into their group. They grow up and they all ship out to different universities. Tony dates a pretty girl named Veronica, they all eventually lose touch with each other. Much later in his life, Tony finds all of these memories drudged up again in a strange encounter with his past.

Tony Webster is one of the most interesting narrators I can remember reading. He is unreliable, but not because he means to lie to the reader. The book is about the ways that memory can be ignored and shaped over the years, and we see his memories take shape and mature into what we can assume actually happened. He also has a desire to understand every moment, and it comes through sometimes when he's successful. These occasional reminders of the pathos behind his actions force us to see it when he doesn't point it out.

The supporting characters are few in this book. Almost all of the story happens between an integral 7 or 8 people, and we don't learn a great deal about any of them. As an alternative to great exposition, these characters come through with a great vividness that works instead. It's not that they're shallow archetypes, they just make a swift and indelible mark and then, just as easily, leave the story. It makes for an interesting break from first-person narrators who have uncanny understanding of people's lives. Tony doesn't know the complete history of these people any more than you know every event of somebody you know.

All in all, this is a stunningly good book. If you have even the slightest interest in stories of this style, you would be doing yourself a great disservice by not reading it.

This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it, and find more of A-schaef's reviews on the group blog.

(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the amazon.com affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)



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Comments Are Welcome, Jerks Will Be Banned


  • Zirza

    Shall I be the token sourpuss today?

    I thought it was tedious and had a tough time getting through it, slim as it is. I thought the characters were either whiney or of the kind you'll only ever encounter in pompous contemporary literture.

    The language is beautiful, though. And I did like Never Let Me Go.

  • Koala Is Not a Bear

    Let's sourpuss together, Zirza.

    I was really looking forward to this book, having enjoyed Barnes' "A History of the World in 10½ Chapters". I had also read the fawning
    reviews. However, I found "The Sense of an Ending" to be a dreary read, despite its modest length. I find unreliable narrators challenging, but I can accept the deceptions/delusions if the narrator has some redeeming features, such as charm or wit, or s/he is used as a clever narrative device, however, Tony was soporific.

    Minor spoilers

    The ending just a little far-fetched in the circumstances. Tony was made to feel responsible for something for which he had only a peripheral involvement. No real cause-and-effect was established. The other players bore much more responsibility. Veronica's anger made no sense to me in the circumstances and her persistent failure to articulate what had happened struck me as a ham-fisted plot device to keep readers guessing rather than a genuine response to the circumstances.

    At the time of its release, there was a great flurry of questions on the internet about the ending of the novel - people couldn't understand what had happened. I think they simply couldn't believe that the ending was so manipulative and anti-climactic.

    Unless... the ending was another example of Tony’s faulty memory and Barnes wanted us to question the veracity of the Tony's interpretation, but the novel was too banal to justify this expectation.

    I sincerely hope they don't film it.

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