The Sense of an Ending

‘I remember, in no particular order’. It is with these provocative words that The Sense of an Ending begins and, in many ways, ends. From here, we are launched into the past of Tony Webster, the novel’s unexceptional, peaceable protagonist. Like any history, The Sense of an Ending repeats itself – or rather, Tony Webster repeats himself, as he probes at memories that are not all comfortable to recall: his schoolboy days, two suicides, a love, a marriage and a divorce.

At times, Tony’s memories, as he revisits them, yield new truths; at others, no such light is shed and we are left, with Tony, in the dark foraging for answers to impossible sums. But the beauty of Barnes’ novel lies in its inherent incompleteness. From the outset, it does not promise the whole truth; as it is written on the first page, ‘what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.’ Here is a book not afraid to show its age spots and mind gaps, that stumbles over itself and alerts us, on its quest for clarity, to its grey areas.

The reader’s aim is clear: we are enlisted to piece together Tony’s past – with and without him – to lodge together memories that have become dislodged over time, not always on Tony’s side as listening to David Bowie has made him want to believe. The Sense of an Ending reads much like an elaborate history book: it is a collation of documents – letters and e-mails – and words, spoken and unspoken; there are witnesses and survivors, victors and the defeated; there is as much speculation (and misconception) as there is fact. Unlike textbook history, however, this version of a past tells not only what happened and what might have, but what should and could have happened if. It is upon this tiny word that Barnes’ entire novel hinges and with which Tony dives into the annals of his story – history – to deliver the truth, or something like it.

The Sense of an Ending thus comprises a careful experiment in history, an alternative answer to a question of history that supersedes those offered by Tony’s old bore history teacher, Old Joe Hunt – ironic for a history teacher to be ‘Old’.  It’s this kind of wit Barnes elicits throughout, an unremarkable, easy humour that suits its equally unremarkable, everyman protagonist. As with any first person account, however, other than the given evidence we have, that is the physical documentation that we take with the word of an elderly man to be true, how can we trust our interlocutor? This instability, inherent to the novel – itself only a sense of an ending and never an ending – leaves us at great unrest. The loss of control in our lives, how time helps us and deceives us is all part of his story, which really becomes, as we piece it together, our own. Quite simply, there is no making sense of The Sense of an Ending. As the young Tony Webster would often say, ‘That’s philosophically self-evident.’

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