I love unreliable narrators. From the unnamed man in The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards to the clueless John Dowell in The Good Soldier to the layered unreliability of American Pastoral, to the multiple narrators in An Instance of the Fingerpost, the craft is sometimes hard to detect. Sometimes it erupts all at once, sometimes it’s given to us in the beginning, sometimes the accretion of details doesn’t add up. And sometimes, as in The Sense of an Ending, we are left overwhelmed by the possibilities.
Barnes, who deliciously skewered nostalgia in England, England, returns to the same theme, but with a dark and unnerving approach that makes the reader wonder about his or her own past. Tony Webster is in his sixties, retired from an undistinguished career, divorced without bitterness, grandfather to a baby he sees every once in a while when his daughter gets around to visiting. The highlight of his life was probably the extended trip he took across the United States after his undistinguished college career, but that was ruined by the news that a prep school friend committed suicide while Tony was away.
Adrian Finn joined Tony and his two pals in a kind of elite society of scholars, although it’s quickly clear that he is far brighter than the other three, who often mistake facile conclusions and clever tag phrases for brilliance. When the four break away onto their own paths, their friendship becomes something to reminisce about rather than restart. But Tony will cross paths with Adrian again.
While in college, Tony has a few girlfriends, but falls in love with Veronica Ford, a somewhat standoffish, somewhat snobby young woman whose tastes are far more sophisticated that Tony’s. From the heady (and bodily) excitement of their early days, they grow more comfortable with each other, until Veronica takes Tony home to meet her parents. Not long afterward, though, they have the “where is our relationship heading?” conversation, and Tony drops her. Except for one bout of breakup sex.
Fast forward a while, and Tony has a letter from Adrian asking his permission to go out with Veronica. Tony dashes off a witty postcard, and that’s the end of the matter–until Adrian emulates the ancient Romans and slashes his wrists in a warm bathtub. Tony grieves for a while, then goes on with the next forty years of his peaceable life.
Then one day an official letter arrives. It seems that he’s been willed a tidy sum of money and some documents by, of all people, Veronica’s mother. Although the money is easy to collect, Veronica has the documents–Adrian’s diary–and no legal effort can pry them away from her. So Tony searches her out himself and asks for the diary via email. She sends him one page that includes ruminations, a mathematical formula with bizarre variables, and ends with, “So, for instance, if Tony “. Puzzled by this introductory phrase, Tony presses Veronica for details, until she at last consents to meet him.
The problem with their initial meeting and those that follow, is that Veronica won’t interpret any of it for him. She tells him repeatedly, “You just don’t get it. You never did and you never will.” On their final meeting, she takes him to a neighborhood in London and shows him something that he still doesn’t get. But Veronica also shows him something that blasts his self-image. That witty reply to Adrian’s letter was actually the invective-laced diatribe of a petty boy seeking to hurt the two of them as deeply as he could. So much for Tony’s memory.
What else does he get wrong? What else had he done or not done, seen or overlooked, heard and misconstrued? Barnes doesn’t tell us. Frustratingly, appallingly, he doesn’t tell us. Perhaps that is why the Intertubes are filled with discussions of The Sense of an Ending, each with a plausible development of the plot, resolution to the equation, and the end of the mysterious sentence. But most of those interpretations are contradictory, because Barnes just doesn’t give us enough. We just don’t get it. We never did and we never will.
It would seem that such an indefinite ending would consign the book to obscurity or subject it to harsh critical reviews. But Barnes’ language is so evocative, so simple, so perfect in tone that within 150 pages he makes an inoffensive nonentity realize the devastating effect he had on many lives. It becomes a powerful story of memory, and of the way we change our memories to meet our own self-image. That may perhaps be an ordinary idea, but in Julian Barnes’ hands it becomes a brilliant novel.
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