When you reach a certain age, you tend to reflect more – upon your life, what influenced the directions you took, those phenomenally important and phenomenally impressionable teenage years, and how what seemed so vital and important doesn’t seem so much that from the perspective of time.
That’s what is happening in The Sense of an Ending by British author Julian Barnes. But like the fine author he is, he doesn’t allow the reader to see that until about halfway through the book. The first part appears to be the story – the very thoughtful and reflective story – of the young Anthony Webster and his friends. They meet at school, form a group, allow a new boy named Aidan into the group, and generally do what teenage boys of the upper middle class do in the early 1960s.
After school, they go to different universities (Aidan to Cambridge, Anthony to Bristol) but they all stay in touch. Anthony meets Veronica at university, they have what eventually becomes an intense relationship, he meets her family, and they eventually go their separate ways.
In the second part of the book, Anthony is in his 60s, remembering and reflecting. And then a death and being remembered in a will changes his life, and forces him to see his youth in a very different – radically different – way. And we are left with those eternal questions: can we really know other people? Can we truly know ourselves? What do we do when our understanding of our lives is turned upside down?
Barnes, born in 1946, is a novelist, essayist, short story writer, and translator. His most recent novel, The Noise of Time, was published in 2016. (I reviewed his novel Arthur and George here last year.) The Sense of an Ending won the Man Booker Prize in 2011.
To call The Sense of an Ending a coming-of-age novel is to do it an injustice. It is that, especially if you define “coming of age” as something that happens over a lifetime. But it is far more than that. It has the sense of an elegy, one sparingly and elegantly written. It is a compact, beautiful novel, one that left me gaping in surprise at the end. But it was the right end.
Top photograph by Kai Stachowiak via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.