The first thing one notices when reading Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Prize winning novel, The Sense of an Ending , is the impossible elegance of the writing. Henry James elegant. The subject matter certainly lends itself to the tasteful, somber, sometimes playful writing. You’re not likely to hear a protagonist fighting robots use the term ‘paterfamilias’ as opposed to ‘father’, but when the narrative is a man looking back on his life, from English prep school to old age, the form of graceful gentility rightly follows function. The Sense of an Ending is a neat, compact book. I’d venture to call it a novella as it comes in at just over 140 pages.
It’s not all high brow stuff though. There are plenty of sweaty palms and clumsiness of young lovers, first loves and regret, lifelong friendships. In other words, lifetime events that everyone can identify with.
The main crux of the book focuses on memory, though. Or more specifically, the slippery, flawed nature of memory. Barnes well conveys how tricky memory can be, using a history lesson in the opening pages as a metaphor: “…One of the central problems of history…is the question of subjective and objective interpretation,” and “History is the certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” Even though these prep school students are the kids Holden Caulfield wanted to beat up, the book rollicks with emotions; wistful and nostalgic, to somber and remorseful. Don’t let that turn you off from this impossibly refined novel.