I’ve just finished Julian Barnes ‘The Sense of an Ending’ and am somewhat mystified as to the critical plaudits heaped on this novel. I’m not saying it’s a bad book or that Julian Barnes isn’t a very skilled writer who has written several books I’ve really enjoyed (‘Arthur and George’ and ‘A History of the world in 10 ½ chapters’ spring to mind) I just don’t see why this rather slight volume is considered the year’s literary apex.
The basic plot involves Tony Webster, a 70 year-old-man who gets an unexpected bequest from the mother of an old girlfriend.
This causes Tony to re-examine his relationships with old friends and beaus from the past. As he grapples with these we begin to realize that Tony is not quite a s honest as he first appears. In fact, his repressed English nature make him the classic unreliable narrator.
The problem for me with the book is that others have mined this territory, notably Kashuo Ishiguro in ‘The Remains of the Day’, as well as many other renown authors from Waugh to Greene to Ford Madox Ford, and personally I think they do it better. I feel for Stevens, the butler narrator at the heart of the ‘The Remains of the Day’. His delusion is more directly caused by the class system of the day that he is wrapped up in.
Tony Webster by comparison is privileged and has the freedom to make a different life for himself -he just doesn’t. Even when it is revealed to him the enormity of his delusion he remains strangely impassive. You could say this is in keeping with his character and I would agree but it doesn’t make for very revelatory fiction. I just get served the old truism that the English are rather repressed and this can make them rather sad characters, particularly in matters of love.