Book Review: The Sense of An Ending by Julian Barnes

You know what? February is a short month. Also, February is a busy time when you are a grad student. Scratch that; every time is a busy time when you are a grad student. So you'll forgive my forgetting that I actually have a blog until this week. A quick recap on what's happened in the past four weeks: I wrote some papers, I presented some of said papers, I went home and marked some other people's papers. There's been a lot of 8 1/2 x 11 in my life this past month.

I've been meaning to post a review of Julian Barnes' 2011 Man Booker Prize winning book The Sense of an Ending since early January when I finished it, but I wanted to let the story settle and when it had, there just wasn't time. But since there will never be time, I'm doing it now, while my coffee is still hot and my fingers are agile.

I've been a devoted Julian Barnes fan since I read England, England in 2008. He is a philosopher first and a writer second, and he is preoccupied with questions of memory and nation and history. It was love at first read.

I read some of this other stuff, most notably A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, the 1/2 chapter of which is absolutely breath-taking, but the other 10 are sort of underwhelming. He was beginning to lose some of his charm.

The final nail in the coffin came when I read his quasi-memoir Nothing to be Frightened Of. It is a meditation on art, death, the afterlife, and God, among other things. It was ploughing through this dense read that lead me to declare Barnes an absolutely brilliant writer, but a terrible storyteller.

So I took a long break from Barnes, decidedly avoiding his books for more satisfactory narratives. That is, until I started hearing an incredible amount of buzz this past fall about his newest novella, The Sense of an Ending. This struck me as significant, because I had never heard anyone outside of a very small cohort who had taken English 4080 at MUN even mention his name. I did some googling and discovered that it had won the Man Booker Prize. And while I don't often place a lot of weight on literary prizes, I decided it was time to revisit an old friend.

And let me tell you, friends; it was worth the wait.

As with all of Barnes' books, the first page hooks you immediately:
We live in time - it holds us and moulds us - but I've never felt I understood it very well. And I'm not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time's malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing - until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.
I mean, if you don't think that's both beautiful and profound, then you are wrong.

The Sense of an Ending is a love story, in a way. It's the love story of the friendships of youth; it's the story of a forced love that goes wrong, a marriage that functions much better after it ends, the untangling of the memory of love from an untimely death.

I love this book. I love it because it is the perfect balance between beautifully crafted writing and a plot that drives the reader forward. It's both sensational and real, comforting and sad. The narrator is searching for redemption from the past in present circumstances that seem unforgiving.

It's fantastic. It's the sort of book you read with a pen - and those are my favourite kinds.

I also appreciate that this book is a novella. I love that Barnes didn't try and stretch this short story over 400 pages, but rather kept it to the perfect size that it needed to be told properly. If you've not read any of his work, or any Man Booker Prize winners, this might be the place to start.

Jillz
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Number of books read in 2013: 5
Current TV series: The Thick of It, series 2
Current nail colour: OPI's "My Very First Knockwurst"


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