Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 12, 2012

The Sense of an Ending (2011), by Julian Barnes, Winner of the Booker Prize in 2011

A friend wrote recently on Facebook that when you lose someone you love there is no such thing as ‘closure’, ‘only days when the loss doesn’t hit you like a truck’.  I thought of this quite a bit as I read Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending.  The narrator Tony Webster, looking back over his long life, ponders whether he has made the most of it.  He’s a peaceable man (or so he says) and he likes things settled, tidy.  He wants this so-called closure but it evades him:

Had my life increased, or merely added to itself? … There had been addition – and subtraction – in my life, but how much multiplication?  And this gave me a sense of unease, of unrest. (p88) 

When his ‘chippy, jealous and malign’  younger self (p97) comes back to shock his older peaceable self that ‘finds comfort in his own doggedness‘ (p89) his unrest escalates.  He had thought himself safe from follies melted away by the frailties of memory because as we age ‘the witnesses to our lives decrease, and with them our essential corroboration’. (p98)

This made me  think about the selves we create on Facebook, GoodReads, Twitter and yes, on blogs like this one: these digital selves are a kind of testimony about who we are. The longer we engage in them with people that we actually know, the more we recognise that these digital selves are not always corroborated by face-to-face contact.  Digital selves are edited, filtered according to some view of the self not necessarily shared by others, and these selves are plastic – not in the sense of fake (or not usually, not with my friends) but in the sense of malleable.

Tony’s view of himself is that he’s a more-or-less reasonable sort of fellow.  He looks back wryly at his adolescent self when he thought (like most of us) that he and his friends were cool observers of the world and comfortable with their own superiority.  Now he realises that by the laws of mathematics and philosophy most people are average and so is he.  He might even be complacent about this except that the malleable self (and some of the toys of the digital age such as email and Google) startle him into realising that actually he was not only culpably vindictive as a young man but that he’s capable now of revenge, spite and harassment to an extent which imperils his fond relationship with his only confidante, his ex-wife Margaret.  He uses those digital toys (and his own doggedness) to do some rather nasty things!

The reader, trying to make sense of Tony’s account of himself, is puzzled by the inevitable omissions, distortions and self-delusions that characterise personal testimonies.  As Tony struggles to understand himself, to achieve that sense of things being settled, the truth of his personal history seems slippery.  As the pieces come together, the importance of the opening chapter when the boys are still at school becomes evident.

Discussing history, and how historians generate explanations for events, Tony’s friend Adrian says is that history can never really be understood.  Even very recent personal history is opaque.  As an example, he refers to the recent suicide of an older student, which can’t be explained because the boy’s suicide note gave no reason for his motives or his state of mind.  Old Joe Hunt, the history master, reminds them to be wary of personal explanations because they are not always what they seem to be, and sometimes actions speak louder than words:

‘But nothing can make up for the absence of Robson’s testimony, sir’

‘In one way no. But equally, historians need to treat a participant’s own explanation of events with a certain scepticism.  It is often the statement made with an eye to the future that is the most suspect….And mental states may often be inferred from actions.’ (p18)

But Tony fails to heed this warning when it comes to his memories of Adrian.  Frozen in time, Adrian retains his status as The Great Mind, the most intelligent student among them, the one who ‘ had always seen more clearly than the rest of us … [and] … looked farther ahead and wider around’ (p99).  With an eye to the future, he ensured his legacy: a noble standard for others to judge themselves by, and they do.  The revelation at the end shows that Adrian was not what his personal testimony suggested.

The Sense of an Ending is a wise, thoughtful novel about human frailty, remorse and how sometimes, we need to look beyond what we are told by others about themselves and interrogate the face that is being presented to the world.  Face-to face, the old-fashioned way…

Barnes won the Booker for The Sense of an Ending in 2011 and also the David Cohen Prize for an outstanding body of work so there are heaps of reviews online.  Here are a couple:

Liesl Schillinger at The NY Times
John Self at Asylum

Update: more reviews from some of my favourite bloggers

Sue at Whispering Gums, was reminded of reminded of TS Eliot‘s The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock by its melancholic tone,  Tony at Tony’s Book World enjoyed reading a book ‘that’s smarter than we are’ and John Boland at Musings of a Literary Dilettante thought it was ‘perfectly formed, weighted, and considered.’

Author: Julian Barnes
Title: The Sense of an Ending
Publisher: Jonathan Cape 2011
ISBN: 9780224094153 (hardback first edition)
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Readings $24.95

Fishpond: The Sense of an Ending


  1. I also thought this was an intelligent, thoughtful book about memory and how we often self-edit the past so that it sits happily in our minds, presenting our cleaned up version to the world (as you say, a bit like a persona presented on Facebook) I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as my teenage daughter grapples with Facebook and the supposed exciting lives of her Facebook ‘friends’. In a way, though, just like the reader of a book, viewers on Facebook will eventually cut through the crap and work things out for themselves! Like that old saying goes, ‘never trust the teller, trust the tale’.
    I loved this book – I raced through it and then was sorry it was over.


    • Hi Deb, good to hear from you! I know what you mean about books like this, that you can’t put down but then you want more of it when you get to the end. That’s a sign of masterly writing, eh?


  2. Great review, Lisa. I loved this book. I also really connected with your thoughts about our online selves. My husband and I have been having a lot of conversation about one particular friend who seems to be trying to create a persona different from his “real life” self. It’s interesting how we see ourselves, and how we want others to see us …


  3. Great review Lisa … glad you liked this book too. It’s one I would happily read again. I love your reference to our different personas in a digital world. Good catch!

    Have you read any of the reviews tackling the “mystery” and “what really happened”? I’m intrigued by the effort some reviewers are putting into the whys and wherefores of the Adrian-and-the-baby business, because it wasn’t really an issue for me.


    • HI Sue, did you review it? I’ll link to it if you did…

      I did come across an ‘explanation’ but I didn’t link to it even though the review apart from that was quite good, because – as you say, it’s missing the point to untangle the ‘mystery’ because it’s not what the book is about.


      • Yes, I did … some months ago now … I loved it. And I agree. I don’t think that’s the point either but for some readers untangling it apparently is.


        • I’ve found it, I remember seeing it now, and not reading it then because I hadn’t read the book myself. I actually saved in my RSS file *smacks forehead* so that I’d remember it *sigh*.


          • Oh, I can’t keep up with it all either … I try systems and then forget to check them too. And then there are books I don’t expect to read and I have no hope of remembering who reviewed those.


  4. I hope the Booker winner this year is as good as ‘The Sense of an Ending’.


  5. I read this last year never got to review it so will be rereading it soon to review but agree its all about looking back ,all the best stu


  6. I really enjoyed your review, and the novel … I found it fascinating that the more unlikeable Tony appeared to be, the greater the pains he took to reconcile the differing aspects of himself – although he was struggling, he seemed, at times to start to grasp the idea that his truth was distorted, or inaccurately tailored by him for his own ego, only to do even greater disservices to himself in his explanations (as if he had learnt less by this realisation, not more).


    • Hello Enid, and welcome! Yes, I agree, and even though he was self-deluded about some things, I did like him for trying, at least, to sort himself out. Like most of us, he would like to be a better person than he is!


  7. This is an excellent review. I’m sorry it took me two years to find it. Should you still be paying attention to this space, I will pose a question: why has so little attention been focused on the novel’s message about responsibility? Most everyone discusses its themes of memory and history, which are certainly key. But I heard this author also saying that responsibility hovers over our every action. Further, that it is convenient to overlook our own role, and to assume that it is either the tide of history or of complexity or of the actions of others that lead to results, good or bad. Barnes broadens responsibility, and shows many characters ignoring that, even the narrator. Poor Tony, so willing to overstate his own import, his own culpability, that he shoulders the blame, in a story that shows he is but one cog in the accumulation of events.


    • Thank you, Ron, that’s very encouraging:)
      It has been a while since I read the book so I can only answer your question this way: we all respond to books in different ways, and sometimes in ways not anticipated by the author. Sometimes, re-reading the book brings new issues to light, and this is especially so, I find, when I re-read books that I read when I was younger and a less experienced reader. The better the book, the more likely this is to happen, IMO, because it means it’s a rich and complex book with many themes and symbols which can mean different things to different people.
      Happy reading!


  8. […] brought it home just because it was Julian Barnes and I had liked The Sense of an Ending so much (see my review).  I had no foreknowledge about the theme and there’s nothing much on the cover blurb.  […]


  9. […] man called Tony Webster reflects on his friendship with the always impressive Adrian Finn. (See my review.)  In Some Here Among Us the never-to-be-forgotten friend is Morgan Tawhai, dead for thirty years […]


  10. […] man called Tony Webster reflects on his friendship with the always impressive Adrian Finn. (See my review.)  In Some Here Among Us the never-to-be-forgotten friend is Morgan Tawhai, dead for thirty years […]


  11. […] Barnes’ Booker Prize winning The Sense of An Ending features an older man reflecting on whether he has made the most of his life.  This is something […]


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