four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
56-Jan-Feb-2012
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A-The Sense of an EndingFormer literary editor and television critic Julian Barnes has published 11 novels, including Flaubert's Parrot (1984), England, England (1998), and Arthur & George ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection Mar/Apr 2006), all of which were short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. In October 2011, The Sense of an Ending was named the winner of the Booker Prize.

The Story: A dull but contented retiree and divorcé, Tony Webster, living on the outskirts of London, is shocked to learn that a woman he met only once, the mother of a long-ago college girlfriend, has bequeathed him a small sum of money. Stranger still is a diary that belonged to his gifted secondary school friend, Adrian Finn, who committed suicide shortly after the boys had gone their separate ways. Tony's former girlfriend Veronica, however, refuses to hand over the book. Instead, she shares fragments of it--a page here, a copy of an old letter there--that disconcertingly fail to correspond with Tony's youthful memories. As the inconsistencies accumulate, Tony, looking back 40 years earlier, resolves to understand what really happened to Adrian.
Knopf. 176 pages. $23.95. ISBN: 9780307957122

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Like the great novellas of Thomas Mann and Flannery O'Connor, this book manipulates. It wheedles and churns for our affection. It sounds the right notes. But then, slowly, it dawns on the reader that its teller is not as in control of the facts as he first appears." John Freeman

Los Angeles Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"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 emotional roller coaster ride that Tony Webster has taken with us perched on his shoulder has such heft and intensity that we feel we too have truly experienced his life-altering revision of what he mistakenly believed to be a humdrum existence." Martin Rubin

San Francisco Chronicle 4.5 of 5 Stars
"That's what this book is about: the unreliability of the eyewitness account, the accumulation of evidence that over time forces Tony Webster to acknowledge the mistakes, the denials, the secrets of his own life and his responsibility for the lives of others. ... The Sense of an Ending is a page-turner, and when you finish you will return immediately to the beginning." Jane Juska

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"The story's surface is simple, polished almost to dullness and dependent on the revelation of a great secret that comes in the final pages. But what is hidden between the lines and perceived only through cracks of the controlled façade is far more chaotic--and likely to leave the reader unsettled for days after finishing this brief book." Sam Sacks

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"With his characteristic grace and skill, Barnes manages to turn this cat-and-mouse game into something genuinely suspenseful, as Veronica reveals just enough information to make Tony desperate for more." Jeff Turrentine

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Like some of Mr. Barnes's earlier works of fiction The Sense of an Ending (the title has been lifted from a work of literary theory by the critic Frank Kermode) is dense with philosophical ideas and more clever than emotionally satisfying. Still, it manages to create genuine suspense as a sort of psychological detective story." Michiko Kakutani

USA Today 2 of 5 Stars
"In the longest, dreariest 163 pages in recent memory, Sense of an Ending offers pretentious philosophical musings masquerading as a novel. ... A meditation on history and memory, the novel includes some beautiful sentences, and Barnes evokes 1960s England with its lingering class tensions. But the male characters are one-dimensional and the female ones even more feeble." Deirdre Donahue

Critical Summary

"This is a book for the ages," raved the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and most critics agreed. An unlikely page-turner, The Sense of an Ending heaves with the philosophical ideas--"the elusiveness of truth, the subjectivity of memory, [and] the relativity of all knowledge" (New York Times)--that distinguish many of Barnes's prior works. As Barnes peels back the layers of Tony's recollections, he reveals the cunning, sometimes chilling, ways that, through selective reminiscence and self-mythologizing, individuals can remain oblivious to their own natures and to the true trajectories of their lives. While USA Today found little to admire, readers (not to mention the Booker Prize Foundation's hand-picked jury) will no doubt be riveted by this ominous, enthralling novel.