Monday, December 7, 2015

The Sense of an Ending: Book Review

Published 4 August 2011
Our minds can play tricks on us.

When we are trying to recall events from decades prior, our version of events often conflicts with others' versions.

Add emotion to the mix, and the memories contrast more sharply.

Honestly, I don't think it's possible to create an objective version of the past. Everyone brings their bias to the retelling.

The protagonist in The Sense of an Ending (2011) by Julian Barnes spends much of the novel trying to recall a series of events from his youth, only to become less and less sure of himself.

The first time I tried to read The Sense of an Ending, I recoiled from the characters I first met: a group of pretentious college boys.

Initially, I didn't get past the first chapter.

Once I learned that the first part primarily functions as an object to be examined and disputed in the second part, I was much more willing to pay attention to this group of self-important young men.

Subsequently, I read the novel in two sittings. (It's 163 pages in the paperback version I read, pictured above.)

The first part describes a series of events that occurred in the 1960s, as told by Tony Webster--one of the arrogant and immature college students.

The second part describes Tony Webster some forty years later. He has received a letter about one of his college friends.  This motivates Tony to contact people from his past.  In part through conversation, in part through self-reflection, Tony tries to piece together what happened then and how everyone's lives played out.

As the novel continues, Tony can see dominoes falling in ways that he never imagined.  As a result, he thinks a lot about identity, responsibility, memory, personality, fate, relationships, love and consequences.
"But time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them. Time...give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical." (ellipses in the original  p. 102)
I am going to read the novel again--in part because the plot, character, and themes are complex.  But don't just just take my word for it; it won the 2011 Man Booker Prize.

I am also rereading the novel because I learned that BBC films adapting this novel, starring Jim Broadbent as the older version of Tony.

Other cast members include Charlotte Rampling, Harriet Walter, Emily Mortimer, Michelle Dockery, Billy Howle, Freya Mavor and Joe Alwyn.

Filming took place during the fall of 2015, so I expect it will be released some time in 2016. I will keep checking IMDB's page here.

In the mean time, the novel has me thinking about key events from my youth and how I am holding onto memories and creating a narrative that might class sharply with other participants in my life events. My life is far less dramatic than those portrayed in the novel, but I still cling to the stories that constitute what I call--and what I have created to be--"my past."

Hmmm. Maybe I will read it three times between now and the film's release.


Films about Aging
Mr. Holmes: Film Revew
The Sense of an Ending: Film Review


  1. I love your thoughtful review, which makes me intent on looking for this show.

    1. My brain loved the complexity, my heart was a little roughed up by the events. Do me, it's a bit more of a cerebral, dude version of Olive Kitteridge. I liked it, even though it made me sad to see how late midlife can really work some people over.

  2. You know, I think I actually have this book sitting on one of my shelves! I'm going to have to go look for it now that you've gotten me intrigued!

    1. I found the second half extremely engaging. I was glued to my chair and tuned out everything and everyone. And then I thought about it a lot over the next week.

  3. I love Jim Broadbent and the story sounds intriguing so I better hurry up and read it. Thanks for the wonderful review, Karen!

    1. Agreed! Broadbent has been in a number of great films and is still getting great work as a person born in 1949. Good for him! He was very good in Iris and Iron Lady. I look forward to seeing this film.

  4. Great review. I never heard of it but am glad you shared. I'll have to check this out for sure now.

    1. It's a little dark, but it asks some interesting questions about how we construct our past.

  5. You have me interest in delving further into this story. I will be adding this book to my list. Thanks.

  6. It sounds beautifully crafted and thought provoking -- a good vacation read!

    1. Vacation reads! Now that's what I want for Christmas -- a plane ticket and a good book.