OK, before I talk about the book I need to talk about the length of chapters in a book. This is a silly little idiosyncrasy of mine, but I like the chapters in the books that I read to be a reasonable length. I often read when I go to bed at night. And whether it’s because my eyelids are growing heavy, or because they should be because the alarm clock will go off all too soon, I often tell myself that I will put down the book “after I finish this chapter”. If the chapters are absurdly short, 2 or 3 pages, I often break the promise to myself and end up reading another 4 or 5 chapters. But when chapters are unreasonably long, or really half of the book, like they are in The Sense of an Ending, finding a natural place for my bookmark before turning out the light becomes a frustrating pursuit. Does that double space between paragraphs indicate a natural break? To find out I need to keep reading, and then, well, I’m still reading. Silly, I know, but a little pet-peeve of mine.
Julian Barnes won the 2011 Man Booker Prize for The Sense of and Ending and it received much critical acclaim, so it’s difficult for me to admit that I didn’t really like it, and not just because there were only two chapters in the entire book. Don’t start yelling at me about how amazing it is; I will admit there were moments in the book that were thought-provoking and amazingly written. The story is told in two parts (hence the two chapters), following the life of the main character, Tony, through his youth and then transitioning to his retirement years. Central to the book are the stories and relationships that he shares with a love interest, Veronica, and a school friend, Adrian. Julian Barnes certainly has a way with words as Tony ponders his life, his perception of his memories, love, loss, and friendship. Some of my favorite quotes, ones that made me stop and think, are included below:
“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but—mainly—to ourselves.”
“When you’re young – when I was young – you want your emotions to be like the ones you read about in books. You want them to overturn your life, create and define a new reality. Later, I think, you want them to do something milder, something more practical: you want them to support your life as it is and has become. You want them to tell you that things are OK. And is there anything wrong with that?”
“Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
“History isn’t the lies of the victors, as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt; I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious or defeated.”
So, with all of the great writing, why didn’t I like it? What I love about books is the stories that they tell and the characters that they bring into my life. Honestly, I wasn’t enamored with either in this book. The characters were ones that I could not be inspired to love, hate, connect with, or even care all that much about. I found Tony to be dull and obsessive and a little ridiculous. I thought Veronica was vague and aloof and difficult and annoying for no real discernible reason. And as I spent each night trying to figure out where to stop and put my bookmark for the night, I kept waiting for the story to get good, for it to rope me in and make me care. Unfortunately, when the story was all told, and the surprise ending revealed, I still just didn’t care.
Title: The Sense of an Ending
Author: Julian Barnes
Publication: Knopf, October 2011