Summary and book reviews of The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending

A Novel

by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2011, 176 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2012, 144 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Morgan Macgregor

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About this Book

Book Summary

A novel so compelling that it begs to be read in a single sitting, with stunning psychological and emotional depth and sophistication, The Sense of an Ending is a brilliant new chapter in Julian Barnes's oeuvre.

By an acclaimed writer at the height of his powers, The Sense of an Ending extends a streak of extraordinary books that began with the best-selling Arthur & George and continued with Nothing to Be Frightened Of and, most recently, Pulse.
 
This intense new novel follows a middle-aged man as he contends with a past he has never much thought about - until his closest childhood friends return with a vengeance, one of them from the grave, another maddeningly present. Tony Webster thought he'd left all this behind as he built a life for himself, and by now his marriage and family and career have fallen into an amicable divorce and retirement. But he is then presented with a mysterious legacy that obliges him to reconsider a variety of things he thought he'd understood all along, and to revise his estimation of his own nature and place in the world.

A novel so compelling that it begs to be read in a single sitting, with stunning psychological and emotional depth and sophistication, The Sense of an Ending is a brilliant new chapter in Julian Barnes's oeuvre.

Excerpt
The Sense of an Ending

I remember, in no particular order:

- a shiny inner wrist;

- steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;

- gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house;

- a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams;

- another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;

- bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door. This last isn't something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn't always the same as what you have witnessed.

We live in time - it holds us and moulds us - but I've never felt I understood it very well. And I'm not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. What does the title mean?

  2. The novel opens with a handful of water-related images. What is the significance of each? How does Barnes use water as a metaphor?

  3. The phrase "Eros and Thanatos," or sex and death, comes up repeatedly in the novel. What did you take it to mean?

  4. At school, Adrian says, "we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us" (p. 13). How does this apply to Tony's narration?

  5. Did Tony love Veronica? How did his weekend with her family change their relationship?

  6. When Mrs. Ford told Tony, "Don't let Veronica get away with too much" (p. 31), what did she mean? Why was this one sentence so important?

  7. Veronica accuses Tony of being cowardly, ...
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  • award image

    Man Booker Prize
    2011

Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

This is heavy business, but Barnes lays it flat out, no stylistic wand-waving, no tricks. He writes in an everyman's lingo with such unapologetic, razor-edged insight, that somehow his prose amounts to a kind of alchemy, putting, as if by magic, words to all those questions simmering away at the back of our minds.   (Reviewed by Morgan Macgregor).

Full Review (815 words).

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Media Reviews

The New York Times

Dense with philosophical ideas... it manages to create genuine suspense as a sort of psychological detective story... Unpeeling the onion layers of the hero's life while showing how [he] has sliced and diced his past in order to create a self he can live with.

San Francisco Chronicle

A page turner, and when you finish you will return immediately to the beginning... Who are you? How can you be sure? What if you're not who you think you are? What if you never were?... [P]repare yourself for rereading. You wont regret it.

NPR

An elegantly composed, quietly devastating tale about memory, aging, time and remorse... Offers somber insights into life's losses, mistakes and disappointments in a piercing, thought provoking narrative. Bleak as this may sound, the key word here - the note of encouragement - is 'insights.' And this beautiful book is full of them.

Los Angeles Times

[A] jewel of conciseness and precision... The Sense of an Ending packs into so few pages so much that the reader finishes it with a sense of satisfaction more often derived from novels several times its length.

The Wall Street Journal

Ominous and disturbing... This outwardly tidy and conventional story is one of Barnes's most indelible [and] looms oppressively in our minds.

The Boston Globe

Brief, beautiful... That fundamentally chilling question - Am I the person I think I am? - turns out to be a surprisingly suspenseful one... As Barnes so elegantly and poignantly revels, we are all unreliable narrators, redeemed not by the accuracy of our memories but by our willingness to question them.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. A knockout. What at first seems like a polite meditation on childhood and memory leaves the reader asking difficult questions about how often we strive to paint ourselves in the best possible light.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. From the haunting images of its first pages to the surprising and wrenching finale, the novel carries readers with sensitivity and wisdom through the agony of lost time.

The New York Times Book Review

The Sense of an Ending is a short book, but not a slight one. In it Julian Barnes reveals crystalline truths that have taken a lifetime to harden. He has honed their edges, and polished them to a high gleam.

The Guardian (UK)

Barnes builds a powerful atmosphere of shame and silence... As ever, Barnes excels at colouring everyday reality with his narrator's unique subjectivity, without sacrificing any of its vivid precision... Novel, fertile, and memorable.

The Telegraph (UK)

Compelling... His reputation will surely be enhanced by this book. Do not be misled by its brevity. Its mystery is as deeply embedded as the most archaic of memories.

The List (UK)

Short and sharp... A true master of his craft, Barnes's precise and economic prose is often a delight, and he packs in some vivid characterisation, scene-drawing, and emotional insight within his brief 150 pages.

Evening Standard (UK)

Barnes has effectively doubled the length of the book by giving us a final revelation that obliges us to reread it. Without overstating his case in the slightest, Barnes's story is a meditation on the unreliability and falsity of memory... Such a slyly subversive book.

The Times (UK)

A dexterously crafted narrative of unlooked-for consequences.

Reader Reviews

lieselotte

the sense of an ending
'The sense of an ending' really pleased me. I liked the philosophical approximation of the subject. Barnes shows a reality with this beautiful story. It surprised me till the end. The author has the skills to pull you into the story. The book was ...   Read More

Cloggie Downunder

a powerful read
The Sense of an Ending is the 11th novel by Julian Barnes. In his sixties, retired, Tony Webster sees his life as pretty ordinary: career, marriage, amicable divorce, one child, two grandchildren. So the letter from a lawyer, informing him of an ...   Read More

gandyb

A Sense of the Ending
Well worth your time.

Novelcommentary

Remembrance of things past
Julian Barnes' novel The Sense of an Ending is an intriguing,well written reflection by a man exploring his past relationship with a school chum and an ex girlfriend. "I’m not very interested in my schooldays, and don’t feel any nostalgia for ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The Unreliable Narrator

In Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending, Tony Webster admits that he may not be a reliable narrator. He acknowledges that it's probably impossible to tell, objectively, the story of your own life, and that it's therefore up to the reader to question or validate his authority.

The Rhetoric of Fiction The idea of the unreliable narrator has long been an issue in fiction, dating back to medieval times. The term, as a formal literary device, comes from critic Wayne C. Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961).

There are many reasons why a narrator might be deemed unreliable. The most obvious one is insanity, as in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, or Stephan Benatar's Wish Her Safe At Home. In the case of the latter, the narrator's illness ...

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