You know you’ve read a good book when you care enough about it has to say that you disagree with it. I’ve never read Julian Barnes before, but I’m very glad I changed this with The Sense of an Ending. Winning the 2011 Man Booker Prize for its “thoughtfulness”, The Sense of an Ending is a short novel that forces the reader to review his/her own life through the lens of the story.
After a brief period of excitement in adolescence, Tony Webster glides complacently through life. He marries a nice, predictable woman, finds a decent career, fathers a healthy, if unexceptional, daughter, amicably divorces and quietly retires. Rather than considering himself a “coward” in life, the now middle-aged Tony contends that he possesses “an instinct for survival, for self-¬preservation”. However, when his college girlfriend’s mother, referred to as Mrs. Ford, bequeaths to him a modest sum of money and the rights to an old school friend’s diary, Tony begins to question his reading of the past and the decisions he has made.
Much of the narrative of The Sense of an Ending is tinged with regret. Tony clearly considers his adolescence and college years spent with fellow idealists Colin, Alex, Adrian and Veronica his high point. He fondly and vividly remembers philosophically charged exchanges with teachers and discourses on living an existential life with his friends, all the while glossing over his relationship with his now ex-wife and the birth of his daughter. Even when the mystery of Mrs. Ford’s bequest begins to unravel, Tony never ceases to regret the course of his own life. Frustratingly, even at the end, Tony is incapable of finding meaning or beauty in the choices he has made and the life he has lead.
My frustration with the protagonist in The Sense of an Ending is the reason I enjoyed this book so much. I expected that once Tony uncovered the truth of the events of his youth, he would come to appreciate his own life and relationships. When he did not, I found myself dissatisfied and had to ask myself why this was the case. I love that Barnes leads his readers on a journey through Tony’s life for 163 pages and then asks them to continue that journey for themselves when the story ends. The Man Booker Prize is much deserved for this “thoughtful” novel.