I have never really engaged with Julian Barnes, to my own loss. "The Sense of an Ending" is short enough to read in a day, but impossible then to put aside in your thoughts. Barnes' protagonist, Tony Webster, is a kind of everyman to those of us who were students at the end of the sixties - and are now in our early sixties.
Here's a better summary than I could possibly write.
(This review from Geoff Mak at Forbes: http://www.forbes.com/sites/booked/2012/03/29/booked-review-julian-barnes-the-sense-of-an-ending/ ).
"By now, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes has gained itself a reputation for being the novel you must read twice. I read it twice, and so did the director of last year’s (2011) Man Booker Prize, which Barnes’ novel won to no surprise.
The book’s plot reads like that of a thriller paperback: full of vengeful ex-girlfriends, youth suicide and illicit sex – though it’s Barnes’ masochistically lyrical insights on loss and memory that drives this novel’s recruiting fan base to keep flipping back the pages.
The book centers on Tony Webster, an Englishman in his sixties, who is unexpectedly bequeathed the diary of Adrian, his childhood friend who had committed suicide forty years earlier. The will is from the late mother of his collegiate ex-girlfriend Veronica. Last he heard from her, she had ditched Tony for Adrian, and was presumably still Adrian’s girlfriend around the time his body was found behind a locked door, bled to death in a bathtub.
Why does Veronica’s mother have Adrian’s diary? And why did she want Tony, of all people, to have it? Tony suddenly finds himself mining his memory to find answers surrounding Adrian’s enigmatic suicide. His search lyrically reveals the weakness of memory as corroboration. These moments, rather than the book’s muscular plot, are where Barnes’ prose is strongest.
“I don’t envy Adrian his death, but I envy him the clarity of his life,” Tony muses in old age. “When you are in your twenties…you can remember your short life in its entirety. Later, the memory becomes a thing of shreds and patches.”
With the patina of hindsight, Tony’s recollection of Adrian reveal memory to be a fractious, fictitious thing, rather than the empirical recount of history in his schoolboy textbooks. What purpose does memory serve outside of corroboration? How does it mold and twist fiction with fact?
In addressing these questions, Barnes’ voice is potently enigmatic when objective details are purposely left out. He spares on physical details as if to shy away from the hard facts that memory can’t provide. The only physical detail we get about any of Tony’s lovers is the way they wear their hair. Dialogue and gossip instead form the basis of what Tony remembers, which makes nearly every conversation doubly interpreted. As Tony says later in life, “All my ‘conclusions’ are reversible.”
Here’s a particularly troublesome scene: in college, Tony asks Veronica why they didn’t have sex until after they broke up. She responds, “I don’t have to answer your questions anymore.”
We can either imagine this the way Tony interprets it: spoken by a curt girl from Britain’s fashionable classes, who dismisses her inferior boyfriend as nothing more than a stepping stone to his smarter, elite friend Adrian.
Or, we can imagine it spoken by an awkward girl with glasses—a misfit in her family, too self-conscious to dance in public—who’s been far too humiliated by the boy to whom she lost her virginity to come up with a clever response. Read the book a second time, and the latter interpretation becomes painfully apparent.
Akin to the nature of memory itself, Barnes’ prose renders these scenes as mere impressions rather than snapshots of a biography. Collectively, those impressions mesh to form something quite far from an objective lens. Nearly every paragraph in this book has multiple interpretations.
Once all the questions are answered, the reader is left in the same state that Tony is in the book’s final pages—floored at life’s essential mysteries, and frustrated that they cannot be relived.
Fortunately for us, we can just read the book again."
Perhaps I will. I especially agree with the reviewer about Veronica, who is disparaged by all the other characters as mysterious and impossible, perverse and controlling, on-the-make, a fruitcake.
Yet we sense a greater absence: her story is never told and her life of introverted desperation is something wholly left to the reader to discern. Veronica has been betrayed by everyone.