February 6, 2012

The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of an Ending
Julian Barnes


(February 6, 2012)

Winner of this year’s Booker Prize, this is the story of a romantic disaster told by an outsider who admits that he just doesn’t get it. Much of this slender story is a metafictional speculation on the unreliability of history and memory, epitomized by a narrator who mistrusts himself, his memory, and his motives.

Alan Holinghurst’s recent novel, The Stranger’s Child, travels much the same road. Many expected The Stranger’s Child to win the prize this book carried off. Barnes is more concise and more intense, but Hollinghurst has a broader canvas and more generous sympathies.

The novel hinges on withheld secrets and progressive revelation. We slowly uncover what really happened some forty years ago when the narrator’s former girlfriend took up with a boy he had known and admired in prep school. Oddly, though, the final revelation strikes me as nearly implausible: it could happen, I suppose, but it explains events no better than our callow narrator’s initial, naive suppositions. Odder still, the story we finally uncover is actually the cover story other characters would have invented to shield themselves from embarrassment.