book review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The backstory: The Sense of an Ending is shortlisted for the 2011 Booker Prize.

The basics: This short novel tackles the major themes of time, memory, perception, friendship, family, parenthood, suicide and love through Tony, the narrator, who is looking back on his life and examining his younger days.

My thoughts: I loved this novel in so many ways. Barnes has an impressive ability to explore theme deeply, and I thoroughly enjoyed the discussions on time and memory. As the novel moved on, I was amazed how much plot he infused into it as well. For such a short novel, this one packs an impressive punch. The pondering prose grabbed me from the earliest pages:
"We live in time--it holds us and moulds us--but I've never felt I understood it very well...And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time's malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing--until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return."
In many ways, Barnes allows the reader to join Tony in thinking about his experience from the literary perspective. The novel is a beautifully rendered novel with passing mentions of form itself: "What was the point of having a situation worthy of fiction if the protagonist didn't behave as he would have done in a book?" Barnes continues to play with this theme: "Had we been in a novel..." I adored this game of truth vs. Truth. He also references characters and events who are not part of this story. Despite the large scope of this short novel, there is also a carefully constructed frame:
"Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does: otherwise there wouldn't be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities; but that's something different, more like decoration. Perhaps character resembles intelligence, except that our character peaks a little later: between twenty and thirty, say. And after that, we're just stuck with what we've got. We're on our own."
As someone trapped between the two generations in this novel, I feel young and old, but also not quite young and not quite old. I found the discussions of time incredibly poignant: "It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others."

This novel is filled with thoughtful truths, and Barnes keeps it from veering into the sentimental by infusing bits of humor in his truths too: "But you find yourself repeating, "They grow up so quickly, don't they?" when all you really mean is: time goes faster for me nowadays."

I read this novel in a single sitting, and I believe it's best to experience it that way. I was mesmerized, moved and awed.

Favorite passage: "I thought again about the three of us, and about time's many paradoxes. For instance: that when we are young and sensitive, we are also at our most hurtful; whereas when the blood begins to slow, when we feel less sharply, when we are more armoured and have learnt how to bear hurt, we tread more carefully."

The verdict: The Sense of an Ending is a beautiful, powerful and thoughtful book. It's not only among the best I've read, but it's one I will want to re-read frequently as my sense of time continues to shift.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 176 pages
Publication date: October 5, 2011 
Source: publisher (via Edelweiss)

Now tell me: What Julian Barnes novel should I read next?

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  1. Certainly does sound like a beautiful book. Your favorite passage alone is convincing enough. On my radar it goes...

  2. This was an incredibly beautiful and erudite review, and I quite enjoyed it! It sounds like this book was amazing, and though I had not heard of it before, like Natalie expressed, it's on my radar now! Thanks for sharing this very impressive review with us today!

  3. I've long had Barnes on my TBR but never got around to him -- clearly, I need to, and quick. You've sold me on this one -- I love inhaling books in a single reading and although this sounds like one to savor, it also sounds like one I would just gobble up.

  4. Sounds like an absolutely charming read. I am glad you enjoyed it!

  5. Carrie, this sounds excellent. Hadn't thought about reading this one previously so thanks.

  6. I really enjoyed Arthur & George by Julian Barnes, and would highly recommend that one! I love the title of this one- it's beautiful.

  7. I didn't really enjoy reading this one, but I can see why you do. I loved Artur and George, but it is a very different book, so I suspect that you won't enjoy it as much as this one. I'd be interested to see your thoughts though :-)

  8. Try Arthur & George - I really enjoyed that. It was my joint favourite to win the Booker in 2005 (with Ali Smith). As you will know, neither won!

    Loved your review Carrie. I also really enjoyed reading this book.

  9. Arthur & George is an excellent novel. The other two I've read fairly recently are Talking It Over and Love, Etc., both of which I listened to on audio. Also very good, but lighter in tone.


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