The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Life was pretty normal for Tony Webster. Average achiever,  average everything. The enthusiasm and ambition that he had in his adolescence had long since petered out. He married, had a daughter, and grandchildren, mowed the lawn and went on holidays.

“But time…how time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined that we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we call realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them. Time…give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical.” 

Nothing spectacular ever happened to him, until one day he became a beneficiary in a will belonging to the mother of an ex-girlfriend of his yesteryears, Veronica. This entitled him to some ‘blood money’ and the diary of a schoolmate that Veronica dated after dating Tony. And from this point on he had this insane notion that he could go back to the beginning and change things. That he could make the ‘blood flow backward’ and take back his curse.

The story is quite a simple one. It’s the writing that does all the hard work. Spread out with deep thoughts on everyday life. Psychological, emotional and social truths, that we can relate to but never tried to think deeper of.

“Does character develop over time? In novels, of course, it does: otherwise, there wouldn’t be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities; but that’s something different, more like decoration. Perhaps character resembles intelligence, except that character peaks a little later: between twenty and thirty, say. And after that, we’re just stuck with what we’ve got. We’re on our own. If so, that would explain a lot of lives, wouldn’t it? And also – if this isn’t too grand a word – our tragedy.” 

This book is not so much about regret as it is about selective memory and history. How he writes his life’s story from memory of the people in his life and those he intentionally forgot about, the things of his past when he had much more ambition and expectations from life than he did now.  And at some point, he realizes that he may not have remembered things how they actually happened.

He recalls a history lesson and a discussion with his teacher Old Joe Hunt and his former close friend Adrien on the definition of history itself. To which the class answered with phrases like ” History is the lies of victors” “the self-delusions of the defeated”. But it was only Adrien, the scholarship-worthy student that said:

History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

As Tony carried on spinning his past(and it is surprisingly witty in some places), and putting it into words he realised how he selectively chose to remember certain things and to forget others. That it would be better to be a plane that crashed because it had a black box that would never forget its story.

Jane Casey in The Missing had written ‘There are two things that cannot be taken back- the sped arrow and the spoken word.’ And I found this quote to be so apt in the case of Tony Webster. I could feel the remorse, the guilt he felt that his last words to a close friend were dark, hurtful and poisonous. If only life had an ‘undo’ button.

The book also talks about suicide and how the world judges those who took their own lives.

The law, and society, and religion all said it was impossible to be sane, healthy and kill yourself. Perhaps those authorities feared that the suicide’s reasoning might impugn the nature and value of life as organised by the state which paid the coroner? And then, since you had been declared temporarily mad, your reasons for killing yourself were also assumed to be mad.”

It’s stories like Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending hint that life is not all that its cut out to be. He hints that life could possibly be exaggerated by art and literature. This toyed with my anxiety and strangely was comforting and assuring at the same time. I want to end this review with Tony’s own wording of history that he began to understand much later in his life.

History isn’t the lies of the visitors 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 nor defeated.”

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