Our imperfect memory

I expected Julian Barnes’ new novel to be stunning. Not because it recently won the 2011 Man Booker Prize (the odds-on favorite) but because of the subject of memory and remorse captured in a small page count (163 pages). No over-written narrative that spans a character’s life legacy here. The Sense of an Ending promised instead an emotional snapshot of potent human elements. What I didn’t realize was how strongly The Sense of an Ending would drive home a truth we casually brush aside — as we grow older, our memories become not only approximate but also deformed by time into certainty.

That’s what the novel’s ordinary and “peaceable” narrator Tony Webster discovers in his 60s. He lets us know from the outset that his “approximate memories” are at the heart of this unforgettable story that he begins in Part One with his pretentious high school days in 1960’s central London. His chums are Alex, Colin and Adrian, who go their separate ways after graduation to universities and a father’s business. Once, they come together again in London to meet Tony’s girlfriend, Veronica. It’s pretty clear Tony and the difficult Veronica aren’t marriage material – Tony informs us that she’s not only difficult but manipulative and, after a home visit to meet her parents, likely “damaged.” They break up, and Veronica falls into the romantic arms of Adrian. Tony writes the two off, graduates from college and travels for six months in the United States.  When he returns, he learns Adrian committed suicide.

In Part Two, 40 years have passed. Barnes effortlessly leaps us forward through Tony’s marriage, parenting, divorce and retirement, keeping us focused not as much on the events as on “the compromise and littleness that most lives consist of.” Also, Barnes keeps us deeply involved and as baffled as Tony by the turn of events, especially when he inherits 500 pounds and Adrian’s diary from Veronica’s mother. Veronica and Tony haven’t seen each other for all these 40 years. 

Veronica is in possession of the diary and won’t give it up. The former college lovers enter a battle of wills via email and uncomfortable, brief meetings. When Tony asks “why me?” about the inherited money, he receives a terse, perplexing reply in his inbox: “blood money.” That’s a small glimpse of the monstrous resentment the difficult Veronica presents to Tony. Her refrain of “you don’t get it” to his insufficient responses illuminates how he failed – and continues to fail – to see the depth of the story between her and Adrian. But Tony’s lack of awareness comes across as an uncomplicated man just trying to connect again. His combined innocence and ignorance intensifies the mystery.

Throughout the slim novel, Barnes elegantly walks the fine lines of what was and is between Tony and Veronica, unfolding the story as Tony first knew it in his memory versus what, as an omniscient narrator, he knows now. An easy example to give is a school event, observing the Severn Bor: In Part One, Tony attends the natural event with university friends, but in Part Two, the 60-year-old Tony realizes Veronica was there also. And so this award-winning novel, short enough and compelling enough to read in one sitting, leaves us not only with a good book to recommend but additionally some disquieting messages that Barnes communicates through his humbled narrator: “What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed” and “the reward of merit is not life’s business.”

3 thoughts on “Our imperfect memory

  1. Hi Kassie! I’ve been a fan (and collector) of Barnes since Flaubert’s Parrot. All I can say is “it’s about damned time he won the Booker!” I liked your use of the word “elegantly” in your review. Elegant. It’s nice to read someone who can actually write – not just publish. If 163 pages tells the tale he doesn’t write another few hundred out of habit. In a way, Barnes reminds me of another favorite from England – guitarist Richard Thompson. Tasteful.

    I also like that he still dedicates his books to Pat.


  2. Hi Bill,
    I didn’t know you were a Julian Barnes collector/fan. He’s truly one of the English language living authors whose status exists in the rarefied air of great literary achievement. I was impressed with this book and think the publisher’s claim that he’s at the height in his career is accurate. Except, I thought “Nothing to be Frightened Of” was a bit of a rant, but I can make an excuse for that, being he’s a baby boomer with the horizon in sight, and writers work these things out with the pen.


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