I remember reading The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson, last year’s Booker Prize winner, and feeling a little disillusioned about the big fiction awards. It felt more like a handout after a long career, and a congratulatory back slap given for a great concept that wasn’t very well executed.
I can happily say that some of my faith was restored after picking up this year’s winner, The Sense of an Ending, mainly because its formula for success was just the opposite. Barnes’ novel, his eighteenth, isn’t built around anything particularly fresh — the weighty personal reflections of an aging man with a lot to think about — but it’s crafted with enough finesse to remind us that, all political issues or social topics aside, sometimes great prose can succeed on its own terms.
The novel is divided into two parts, both seen through the eyes of mild and unassuming Tony Webster. First, Tony strains to recall images of his youth in retrospect, and secondly (in what is the more effective half), we find him in the present day, attempting to come to terms with newly discovered elements of that past.
After some initial musings on the failings of memory, which resurface throughout, it becomes clear from the outset of the narrative that every issue to be faced will stem either from Tony’s boyhood relationship with three pals (one of whom, Adrian, is brilliant and perhaps too perceptive for his own good) or his troubled experiences with a number of failed lovers.
Once Tony has sufficiently introduced us to these matters, he talks himself painfully and with the groping hand of someone clearly at a loss for life’s answers through his memories of Adrian’s unexpected suicide at 22. And the mental trauma that goes along with those recollections is found right at the point at which his two paths of past uncertainty meet: not only was Adrian a friend up until his death, but he was dating Veronica, a former lover of Tony’s, at the time.
If the plot seems a little wishy-washy halfway through, that might be because, left alone, it is. But, at every opportunity, Barnes takes a moment to pull back the lens a bit and let in some light, and some fairly deep commentary, on both the mundane and tragically inescapable stuff of life, or death.
Fictional first person aphorisms about the nature of things can become really annoying, but that’s because they’re often made by poorly written characters or penciled in by blindly arrogant authors. Barnes’ work, at least in this case, doesn’t fall into either category. The musings are always worth reading.
The second half of the novel really hits hard as it is the point at which all of that blurry hindsight gets turned on its head. After living happily in the silence and solitude of old age, Tony gets an unexpected delivery, notifying him of the death of Veronica’s mother. Inexplicably, she’s left him some cash, and even more inexplicably, Adrian’s diary, which he kept up until his death. The hints, and, finally, the answers that Tony finds within this final look into the past, accompanied by the reappearance of Veronica herself, will reshape his perceptions of everyone, especially himself, and his own role in the relationships he could never quite leave behind.
That’s what made this a great novel. Barnes started small — the unsure, unimpressive mind of one troubled man — and built big with his narrative. It’s hard to do that really well, and it’s why it sometimes seems like these prizes get handed out to the author with the most striking idea, or the best ideological leap. In the end, the idea can only go as far as the prose, and Barnes takes it just about as far as it can go with this one. It’s sharp, unsettling and meditative all at once.
And it’s 176 pages long. To accomplish something like that in 176 pages is brilliant. Seriously. It’s great fiction. Someone give that man a prize.