|"This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn't turn out to be like Literature."--The Sense of an Ending|
In The Sense of an Ending Julian Barnes establishes and disputes a man's reckoning of his own life in under 200 pages. The external layer of the novel consists of the ruminations of Tony Webster, a middle-aged English everyman, as he recalls his past 40 years with a comfortable blend of nostalgia and regret. Webster's memories are mildly piquant, and Barnes' prose boosts their vividness just enough to sustain the reader's interest, interrupted every twenty pages or so by a tick-tock musing on the nature of time and memory. Never mind, we are just ruminating along with Tony and his milquetoast confessions and revelations about friends and lovers from long ago. Very near the promised ending, a present-day discovery amplifies the tick-tock and forces Webster to re-assess the whole shebang in real time, and everything the reader has been told begins to wobble and demand re-interpretation. As I wrote in my review of The Sense of An Ending for Shelf Awareness, it's "a sneaky little hand grenade of a novel"--once the pin falls out, one is compelled to go back to the beginning of The Sense of An Ending to see how it was built, and to determine whose complacency has been exploded--ours or the narrator's?
A Novel in a Sextet
Barnes might have as easily titled his novel The Stealth of a Beginning. The opening page, which on first read appears harmlessly lyrical--a poetic sextet of liquid images--on second read reveals that it contains the entire DNA of the novel, yet even this knowledge will not give the ending away, because the ending is as much an interpretation as a refutation. The major of accomplishment of this slender novel is that it uses the actual elements of its own scenes to indict the glibness of anecdote.
Listen to Barnes Read the Beginning of His Ending
The Man Booker Prize Podcast Series has a recording of Barnes reading the beginning of The Sense of an Ending. It begins at Minute 4:40, after an introduction by Tom Sutcliffe of BBC Radio 4 and an endorsement by Gaby Wood, one of the Man Booker Prize judges. The excerpt read by Barnes is an unadorned, highly resonant piece of audio. If you listen to it after you read the book, it will give you chills as you pick up even more clues to the novel's denouement, but you can also listen to it before you read the book without fear of spoilage. (Readings by all the 2011 shortlist nominees are also available for download from the Man Booker Prize Podcast iTunes page.)