The Sense Of An Ending is a well-written book with memorable ideas.
This review does not contain spoilers, but has affiliate links.
Although it does not live up to its lofty ambitions, this Booker prize-winning novel is valuable. Coming at less than 50,000 words, you can read this novel in one sitting, like I did. However, it may be beneficial to let the novel sizzle in your mind afterwards, as Julian Barnes wants you to consider the events that have unfolded.
We follow Tony Webster, who despite being a thoughtful individual, is not a captivating protagonist. His weakness is that he perceives the world through coloured lenses. You know that what you see is not what you get. Luckily, Barnes is smart enough to make that a core point in this novel. Time and memories do not always mirror each other.
However, authors who toy with ambiguity must give us principled reason to care. Ultimately, this was Tony’s weakness as a character.
Whilst reading the novel, I thought Adrian and Veronica were far more interesting characters. Yet for obvious reasons, neither are protagonists. It makes sense for Tony to be the dominant character. He is the bystander of the events, and as Barnes puts it, the catalyst for life to happen to.
Yet considering the time we spent with Tony, we need more meat than philosophical ramblings. Juxtaposing Tony are his two other childhood friends, who are also unremarkable. This creates a ‘sameness’ within the characters. They exist as ideas, archetypes, or mirrors. Not as fully fleshed out as human beings.
And that’s okay for some authors. The late David Foster Wallace did that, to much success. But literary fiction authors must understand that it comes at the cost of realism, when done poorly.
Readers can’t be invested in a story where they can’t imagine genuine people being caught in it. That’s why some scenes with dull characters feels lacklustre and unremarkable. Shame, because I think Julian Barnes is a superb writer with outstanding ideas.
But he struggles with manifesting his notions in the actual world. This is showed with Tony Webster. I get that he is unlikeable, unremarkable and foolish, but I don’t think he was supposed to dull.
The Sense of an Ending has many strengths. For one, it is well edited. Not a single word is wasted. I appreciate the sharpness of the prose. In today’s literary climate, many authors feel they must waffle on to meet an already unreasonable word count to justify existing. Barnes does not do that. The novel remains better for it, and he expresses his philosophy in fewer words.
Other bonuses to Barnes’ work is that he knows how to get you invested in Adrian.
I was surprised that Barnes avoided clichés with Adrian. He’s the best character, by far, and time spent on other’s issues feels like time that could’ve been spent with Adrian.
Although I found the other characters dull, I was floored with the thematic depth of Adrian. Like the best fictional, secondary characters, there is an air of mystery about him you know will never be resolved. This adds a richness to the text I’m sure will inspire many creative writers.
Yet the biggest positive to The Sense of an Ending is that despite its heavy subject, it is easy to read. I don’t mean that its simplistic, because it is not. Neither am I talking about the length. Instead, what makes Barnes novel easy to read is the prose. Julian Barnes is quite the wordsmith, and the sentences flow in harmony. He never weakens his ideas, and although I ultimately found them half-baked, it is clear he respects his readers and their time.
I stand by my point that this novel needed more fleshing out of its concepts and characters. Yet what we get is still solid and a beautiful read. Because of that, I’m giving The Sense of an Ending a solid and positive rating. I recommend this book.