The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (2011) 150 p.

It seems appropriate to finish my 2011 Booker Challenge with The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes’ story about memory and history and how subjective they can be. Somebody pointed out to me that the books on the longlist could be thematically twinned; Half-Blood Blues and Far To Go are both about Nazi Germany, Jamrach’s Menagerie and Derby Day are both set in Victorian England, Snowdrops and The Last One Hundred Days are both novels about expats, and so on. In that case, The Sense of an Ending is partnered with The Stranger’s Child, as both are about the unreliability of history – though Barnes clearly has more self-restraint, with this 150-page book barely classifying as a novel.

The Sense of an Ending follows the life of Englishman Tony Webster, and is split into two parts: one with Tony recounting his school years when he met his friend Adrian and his college years when he met his first girlfriend Veronica, and one taking place in the modern day when, long abandoned, they suddenly intrude back into his life and provide him with a mystery to solve. The predominant theme of the book is how our memories, like all our thoughts, are warped by our own feelings and emotions – often deliberately. Tony has had a fairly mundane and comfortable life, a pleasant marriage and an amicable divorce, a cordial relationship with his daughter and a relaxing retirement. Yet the book has a great sense of loss to it, of closed doors and missed opportunities, and Tony often speaks of inventing pasts for himself, of giving Veronica an “edited” version of his life when they meet again. Similarly, he changes and influences past events in his own memory; removing his own guilt in certain places, and allocating it to others. For the most part it’s done quite skillfully, but much of the book takes place within Tony’s head, and he does tend to cover familiar ground on the subject.

The ending, when it comes, is something of a puzzler. I’m going to avoid discussing it in detail because of spoilers, but suffice to say that it doesn’t exactly tie up all the loose ends.

The Sense of an Ending is one of those books that’s diffficult to pass judgement on because I found it fairly unremarkable and forgettable. I’d certainly rather read a 150-page book than a 600-page goliath like The Stranger’s Child, but that does mean it leaves a fleeting impression, and – while it certainly wasn’t bad – I don’t have much to say about it.


There are two things I’ve heard people say, a lot, about this book’s chances. The first is that it’s too short, which seems specious; if it was too short to win, it wouldn’t have been nominated. The other is that it’s not Barnes’ best novel and that it would be more of a lifetime achievement award, like Ian McEwan winning the Booker for Amsterdam or Martin Scorsese winning the Oscar for The Departed. I’m not familiar with Barnes’ previous books, but I did find The Sense of an Ending to be fairly middle-of-the-road. I also dislike “lifetime achievement” awards and think they go against the idea of the Booker – but they’ve happened in the past, so they can happen again.

Overall, I personally don’t think The Sense of an Ending deserves to win the Booker, but I’m more hazy on whether it actually will. I wouldn’t bet on it, but I wouldn’t be overly surprised if it did.

The Sense of an Ending at The Book Depository