Friday, 16 December 2011

Book Review: The Sense of an Ending- Julian Barnes (a few spoilers but not biggies)

I am already laden with a fascination for the human condition of editing our memories, of manipulating perception of our past, deluding ourselves of our futures, probably why I find the weird science of the film ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ equally interesting whether we do it consciously or otherwise. It comes as no surprise that Barnes’ ‘The Sense of an Ending’ caught my attention and probably would have done even if it hadn’t won the Man Booker Prize 2011.

The main theme seems to be the unreliability of memories and how this embeds into personal lives via self preservation, delusion, a need to cover up and bury hurt or things we may regret or feel ashamed of, how this also relates to the bigger picture of recording history on a grand scale and can often reduce back down to recollections in nostalgia induced states.

This story starts in the 1960’s, a time of wild revelry and sexual revolution, humorously pointed out as dependent on where you lived of course. Going by the’ book hungry, sex hungry’ Tony Webster at this time, not so wild then, demonstrated so eloquently by the copious amounts of masturbation and ’infra red’ sex (what I call, over clothes feelies, yes we all remember those) he seemed to have with his first girlfriend Veronica.

It is a very simple plot, very simply structured but lusciously written full of poignant philosophical points about perception and how differently people see the same event or chain of events, Tony’s benchmark for this being his rather clever friend Adrian. Of course nowadays that clever friend has been rudely usurped and twisted out of shape by social networking within a global village of memoirs, basically someone you were scared of as a child, who made your life a misery, pops up cyberly and tells you how much they wanted to be you.

That goes into my waste paper bin of fucked upped-ness in that you then have to feel guilty about all the years you wished them dead and now it turns out they admired you…urgh who needs that unravelling your bitter perception and neurosis. So loosely speaking, Tony’s ex girlfriend’s mother bequeaths him five hundred pounds 40 years later after one disastrous meeting way back in history (so easily could have been a friend request but that book would have been shit)

Joking aside from the more modern day social dramas of the online variety and revelations of what you might have been responsible for twenty years ago, this book unravels the memories of one man, the mystery of the blood money and the tragedy of a young friend’s suicide that became one of the buried hurts in this protagonists life as he lays all his bare bones down for everyone to see the beauty and the beast within him.

A man that claims again and again his self-preservation is about maintaining a peaceable life, a trait that infuriated his girlfriend who advocated bluntness combined with enigma but continually got stamped as prickly and difficult when she pointed out Tony’s easy way out was actually cowardice (I liked her) He then marries Margaret, a woman who has clear edges in comparison, but then promptly and amicably divorces her.

Leaping too far ahead now though, the first part of the book is the friendship of initially three boys on the edge of coming of age, thusly joined by the super clever wonder boy Adrian. Their pomposity reminds me much of ‘Dead Poet’s Society’ and particularly as suicide starts to make such an impact on the young lives foreshadowing the demise of Adrian in later years. The boys remain friends through school but drift apart on starting different Universities and finally said girlfriend Veronica severs this, in Tony’s eyes ‘running off’ with the cleverer more suitably middle class match Adrian.

Bitter recriminations ensue and add to Veronica’s character maligned, even by her own mother, when she warns her daughter’s suitor to not take any guff from her. Later nicknamed ‘The Fruitcake’ by Tony’s wife, even after he omits this girlfriend from his own history, initially shows that this woman, as prickly as she might appear, is actually going to turn out to be the greatest victim of the story. So deluded is Tony that as a young man, he even manages to construct a theory of control and manipulation on her part because ‘she is short and never wears heels’. As he looks at her photograph some forty years later, he starts to see things differently.

Part two of the book is the retired Tony looking back and trying to piece together why Mrs Ford, the mother of his ex girlfriend from so long ago has left him money and the diary of his dead friend. This all falls apart and reforms another version of events and tragedies from the past, that as if stumbled upon by accident, throws up questions of vanity, of ageing, warnings that turn out to be betrayals, knee jerk responses that cut to the kill and investigations of responsibility on the scale of JB Priestley’s  ‘An Inspector Calls’ ending with an unsettling self knowledge. 'The Sense of an Ending' is a mere one hundred and fifty pages of ordinariness that turns out to be nothing of the sort.  

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