Julian Barnes – “The Sense of an Ending”

“History is a raw onion sandwich, sir.”

“For what reason?”

“It just repeats, sir. It burps.”

And a moment later, a student states:

“History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

Yes, well, that history thing will certainly return on one Anthony “Tony” Webster.

That certainty.

“The Sense of an Ending” is about putting together a story about your life, one that explains everything about the way things are today in your world. All the events and details and highlights and drama must fit that story, all other tidbits and non-conforming incidents jettisoned to the wayside, filed under “N” for non-conforming and, therefore, irrelevant.

But as far as the “inadequacies of documentation,” there isn’t much inadequate about what awaits Tony, a file from the aforementioned scrapheap and how it shatters his, well, narrative. The satisfying one.

What you need to know about Tony Webster is that he has a “certain instinct for self-preservation.” Nonetheless, there are some issues to sort out.

“So when time delivered me all too quickly into middle age, and I began looking back over how my life had unfolded, and considering the paths untaken, those lulling, undermining what-ifs, I never found myself imagining—not even for worse, let alone for better—how things would have been with Veronica.”

Ah, Veronica. Future source of “dim fantasies” and the spark in this story, the one whom Tony can’t really forget.  There’s an early suicide and, later, an odd bequest that triggers events here. There is love, regret, jealousy, divorce, trust and time. There is also water—lots of water in the background here. Roman Polanski should make the movie.

This is a chiseled-in-granite, terse story that reminded me of Ian McEwan’s last few – Saturday, Atonement and On Chesil Beach. Like those, The Sense of an Ending packs a wallop in novella fashion. The “voice” is serene and rock steady. The impact of events, unquestionable. The writing is beautiful. (And the ending is just a bit vague; Barnes does not switch to spoon-feeding here.)

And the mystery is delicious. Something is drawing Tony toward this information that will blow up in his face. We know it. Tony Webster may know it. There’s an undertow, something tugging him back to check, back to Veronica, back to revisit key moments in the narrative and make sure all the threads are tightly woven, that the story works.

Yeah, I think you know. Not quite so fast, Tony, not quite so fast.

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