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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Sense of an Ending

Julian Barnes

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To purchase The Sense of an Ending

Title: The Sense of an Ending
Author: Julian Barnes
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011
Length: 163 pages
Availability: The Sense of an Ending - US
The Sense of an Ending - UK
The Sense of an Ending - Canada
The Sense of an Ending - India
Vom Ende einer Geschichte - Deutschland
Il senso di una fine - Italia
  • Man Booker Prize, 2011

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine short novel of memory and how we shape our pasts

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 6/8/2011 Michael Prodger
The Guardian . 26/7/2011 Justine Jordan
Independent on Sunday . 7/8/2011 Christian House
New Statesman . 8/8/2011 Leo Robson
The NY Rev. of Books . 10/5/2012 Colm Tóibín
The NY Times Book Rev. A 13/11/2011 Liesl Schillinger
The Observer A 30/7/2011 Justin Cartwright
The Telegraph A 25/7/2011 Anita Brookner
The Telegraph A+ 1/8/2011 Toby Clements
TLS . 22/8/2011 Lidija Haas
USA Today C 23/10/2011 Deirdre Donahue

  Review Consensus:

  Almost all very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "The path to revelation requires adroit handling. The mechanism of the novel is so intricate that one slip and the whole thing would spring apart. Barnesís writing, though, is founded on precision as well as on the nuances of language. And the secret, when it finally arrives, is breathtakingly unexpected. Just as one explanation seems to become clear, a second arrives with the force of a slap." - Michael Prodger, Financial Times

  • "With its patterns and repetitions, scrutinising its own workings from every possible angle, the novella becomes a highly wrought meditation on ageing, memory and regret. But it gives as much resonance to what is unknown and unspoken -- lost to memory -- as it does to the engine of its own plot." - Justine Jordan, The Guardian

  • "This book is something like a Ruth Rendell; confounding not just readers' suppositions but also those of the narrator. (...) The result is adroit and unnerving and Barnes's keen intellect has rarely been so apparent. He, like his contemporaries, McEwan, Amis and Rushdie, is a gin-and-tonic novelist: his books are crisp, cool and provide a kick to the head, but they seldom, as is the case here, touch the heart. If that's the kind of tipple you enjoy, then The Sense of an Ending is a double on the rocks." - Christian House, Independent on Sunday

  • "The result, in this instance, is an odd and unnerving sort of novel, in which even a description of a lawyer is reduced to the status of feed line" - Leo Robson, New Statesman

  • "Barnes's novel, then, is not about England or about loss, but it is an attempt to find a language and a formal structure in the novel that will allow one man to make sense of things in the abstract, but also in his own voice." - Colm Tóibín, The New York Review of Books

  • "The Sense of an Ending is a short book, but not a slight one. In it Julian Barnes reveals crystalline truths that have taken a lifetime to harden. He has honed their edges, and polished them to a high gleam." - Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The Sense of an Ending is a short novel, but one that packs in a lot. Full of insight and intelligence, it is in some ways a more intellectual version of Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, touching on the same themes of youthful sex, inhibition, class, regret and false recollection. (...) (T)his is a very fine book, skilfully plotted, boldly conceived, full of bleak insight into the questions of ageing and memory, and producing a very real kick -- or peripeteia -- at its end." - Justin Cartwright, The Observer

  • "It would be a mistake to dismiss this as a mere psychological thriller. It is in fact a tragedy, like Henry Jamesís The Turn of the Screw, which it resembles. (...) Do not be misled by its brevity. Its mystery is as deeply embedded as the most archaic of memories." - Anita Brookner, The Telegraph

  • "Barnes is on absolutely top form here. His sentences, each one so simple and precise, are as iridescent as tropical fish, each one individual and distinct, each one expressing a single revelatory insight, thought, image or joke, and yet they work together to produce a perfectly wonderful harmonious shoal, a work of rare and dazzling genius." - Toby Clements, The Telegraph

  • "The way in which we construct our histories, our fictions, is the subject of the novel, which shares its title with Frank Kermodeís critical study of 1967. Poised between a straightforward story and a novel of ideas, Barnes has it both ways, just as he often contrives to be so English and so French at once. He succeeds in this partly because he is too clever to let his cleverness get in the way: the ideas are filtered through a mind less agile than his own, so that theory is always bound by character." - Lidija Haas, Times Literary Supplement

  • "In the longest, dreariest 163 pages in recent memory, Sense of an Ending offers pretentious philosophical musings masquerading as a novel." - Deirdre Donahue, USA Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Sense of an Ending is narrated by Tony Webster, who is now old, retired, divorced. He putters about a bit, trying to remain active and mix among people, but he accepts that, for example, he isn't a very big part of his daughter's life any longer.
       The Sense of an Ending is a two-part novel, and in the first Tony looks back over his life, and particularly his youth and university years. At school he had two close friends, and the bright Adrian Finn joined the group when he came to their school, making for a quartet. They began to drift apart once they graduated, heading off to different universities and work, but remained in touch with each other -- and particularly Adrian.
       At university, Tony's first real relationship was with a girl named Veronica -- but their intimacy only went so far. Tony describes an uncomfortable weekend stay at her family's house -- with her jocular (and alcohol-loving) father, bright brother (who was at Cambridge with Adrian), and a mother whose advice is: "Don't let Veronica get away with too much." He also recalls introducing his girlfriend to his friends.
       The relationship doesn't endure, and Veronica, in particular is left with a bitter aftertaste to it; to Tony's surprise, he eventually hears from Adrian that Adrian and Veronica are a couple -- which, he suggests, doesn't bother him that much. That relationship too ends soon -- in complete disaster --, and Tony's musings seem largely an effort to make sense of what happened back then.
       His thoughts are set in motion by his receiving a bequest -- or part of one: Veronica's mother has died, and she left him some money, as well as Adrian's diary. But Veronica refuses to hand over the diary, and the second part of the novel follows Tony's present-day attempts to get it, and to get at what happened so many years ago. It also becomes a process of self-(re)discovery, as it turns out that Tony's has (re)shaped his memory of the past, and that his perception and reality are not quite the same.
       Barnes beautifully undermines what began as Tony's confident retelling of events from his past, as Tony shows himself to be on increasingly shaky ground: he is not so much an unreliable narrator as one who has reshaped his past to dull and blunt the edges (making it easier for him to live with himself and what he has done). Presented with evidence of who he was decades earlier, he hardly recognizes himself or his own words. It's not that he was once a truly horrible person who did terrible things, but he wasn't nearly as nice and benign as he claims.
       Veronica grudgingly allows some contact between them again, but her efforts to open his eyes consistently fall short. Somewhat frustratingly, she can't just come right out and say it -- but given what transpired her reluctance to confront it head-on is perhaps understandable. As she eventually tells him, after all the nudges and clues:

You still don't get it. You never did, and you never will. So stop even trying.
       On the one hand she means Tony's willful blindness, as evidenced by how he remembers the past. But Barnes neatly adds another layer, as the truth is revealed to the persistent Tony in the end -- and what a doozy that final revelation is.
       The Sense of an Ending is a fine meditation on memory and how we shape our pasts to make the present endurable. Tony might argue that if there were one word to describe him it is satisfied -- as he insists, over and over, that he's at peace with what he's made of his life and how he has lived it -- but what he comes across as mostly is resigned. In trying to get to the bottom of the questions raised by the strange bequest he becomes surprisingly pro-active -- yet his activity push away his former wife (with whom he is on relatively good terms) as well as Veronica (not that there was much chance of him getting much out of her under the best of circumstances). When all the pieces finally begin to fall into place, Tony promises to others:
I'll finish my food and be off, and none of you will ever see me again.
       Life hasn't passed him by, but he is limited to his own very limited role; he can not be part of anyone else's.
       There is little sense of bitterness here, but The Sense of an Ending is a sad tale, each man (and woman) an island, lost to one another. Adrian remains the ideal for Tony, even though Adrian's response was the most depressing and extreme one of all.
       Finely wrought, there is some feel of artifice and construct to The Sense of an Ending; still, it's a very good and well-told little story.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 June 2012

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The Sense of an Ending: Reviews: Julian Barnes: Other books by Julian Barnes under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       English author Julian Barnes was born in 1946. He is the author of several highly acclaimed novels.

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© 2012-2021 the complete review

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