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Micah reader in May 2017 by Brenda Levenson
Julian Barnes is considered one of today’s best British authors. His writing is superb, as we all agreed, but The Sense of an Ending, published in 2011, received a mostly negative reaction which, we hasten to say, did not prevent our readers from pursuing a lively discussion.
The story is about aging and memory, what we remember and how we remember it, a theme that Proust addressed in his masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time and Lawrence Durrell in his entertaining and historically interesting The Alexandria Quartet. Barnes’ slim novel is more modest. Tony Webster, the main character and narrator, is a retired art administrator, divorced from his wife Margaret with whom he maintains a friendly relationship. He leads a quiet and satisfying life when he suddenly receives a large check bequeathed to him by the mother of Veronica, the girl he once dated at university in Bristol, and at whose family home he was once invited for the weekend. The humiliation to which he was subtly subjected during his visit, leads to one of Barnes many short and rich lines, about a country “in which shadings of class resist time longer than differences in ages.” A short remark between Veronica and her brother, aimed at Tony, helps explain what would eventually appear as a “set-up” by siblings aware of their mother’s appetite for young and handsome men. At the start of the novel, Tony has long ceased contact with Veronica and three of his friends, a fourth, Adrian Finn, the intellect of the bunch, who also dated Veronica, committed suicide while still a student at Cambridge, but he remains very much part of the story. The money Tony receives compels him to return to the past in an effort to understand a reason for the gift. At which point the novel becomes a puzzle, prompting our readers to try and unravel who is who and what happened. “Is Tony reliable?” was a question raised, precisely the author’s intent.
One of our readers saw “a disconnect between the writing and the story.” Another thought that “there is so much that is logical and so much that is illogical.” The characters are well defined, among them the portraits of a group of emotionally disturbed young men at the end of the novel, when a mystery is finally solved as to the parentage of one of them. There was some discussion about the title of the book, which led to humorous comments from our readers, some of whom ventured that the “Sense” was its ending, at long last.