The Sense of an Ending – A Review

Unlike rolls of cinema, life that fades away into the past is not available for playback. Recollections are more a collage of overlapping images, colours fading into sepia, hues into grayscales, realities crisscrossing and blurring with wistful fiction. Like vignettes snatched from visions in a hypnogogic dream, memories ebb and surge, glisten and wane, change shapes and colours, lending stranger meanings to the past. Julian Barnes’ short novel ‘The Sense of an Ending’ mulls on the effervescence and malleability of memory in a slow rising cadence, achieving a crescendo which is chilling in retrospect.

The book seeks to establish that memory can be bitingly alien to the plain truths of the past, “what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.” We begin with Tony Webster reminiscing about his life and his childhood friend Adrian, beginning at the school where they met. Tony, Alex and Colin are close friends at a ‘girl-less’ school. They are cynical and irreverent and wear their watches on the inside of their wrists to mark themselves different from others. When Adrian joins the school and earns the focus of the class due to his intense, philosophical remarks, he is inducted into the clique of friends. However, Adrian refuses to imbibe the mocking attitude of the other three and remains as serious in his manners as to his classes and clarinet. Indeed, he carries the attitude right into his youth, “I hate the way English have of not being serious about being serious. I really hate it.”

Released from the school into the larger pen of life, friends go their different ways, promising to be lifelong friends, writing to each other. Adrian goes to Cambridge on a scholarship and Tony takes up History in Bristol where he meets Veronica, a prudish and enigmatic upper class girl. Somehow the Sixties refuse to make things easier for Tony as Veronica would not encourage physical intimacy. Over time she invites Tony to stay with her posh family for a weekend. Both her father and brother appear to have a condescending attitude towards him but what makes matters worse is that Veronica seems to be more on their side than Tony’s. Tony feels almost humiliated and is hugely relieved when he returns after the weekend. “I remember that I had a bloody good long shit.”

Soon after that Veronica gets introduced to Adrian and starts gravitating towards him. Tony receives a letter from Adrian asking his permission to go out with Veronica. Tony doesn’t take it kindly and hopes that time will take its revenge on both of them in his joint letter to them. Tony leaves for the States on a relaxing tour and it is only when he returns that he comes to know how time had indeed taken the revenge: Adrian had committed suicide. But it seems that that is not all.

Many years after that, well into his retirement, Tony discovers he has been paid back with ‘blood money’ and the diary of his long dead friend Adrian, by Veronica’s mother through her will. For Tony, who has always considered himself a staid, peaceable being, ignoring “those lulling and undermining what-ifs”, life takes unsettling and murky turns as his own curse returns to haunt him. He takes frantic plunges into the tunnels of past in search of meanings only to discover how illusive history could be. ‘We live with such easy assumptions, don’t we? For Instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it’s all much odder than this. Who was it that said memory is what we thought we’d forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it’s not convenient –it’s not useful – to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.”

If ‘The Sense of an Ending’ is a treatise on elasticity of memory, it also carries a wickedly insistent theme to a startling climax. There are many betrayals in the story, some clear and some inferred, and by the time the last words are read no one is sure who is the most betrayed, thanks to the perennial pounding on the ramparts of memory. The author spins a bunch of images with the very first sentence of his book, “I remember in no particular order….” However, the reader is lulled into complacence by the charming account of childhood followed by the oafish naiveté of youth that fill the first part of the story. The malleability of memory, the skullduggery that the mind can play, doesn’t start haunting us till we begin the next half when Tony starts meandering in time, questioning the incidents, intentions and emotions of his quasi-forgotten past. His intimate tone is almost conspiratorial when he is philosophizing and deconstructing the past, sowing seeds of suspicion in the reader’ mind as well as his own. “When we are young, we invent different future for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.”

Julian Barnes is an elegant author with a wry, lucid style. His main characters can be as real as to be breathing down one’s neck. Even as ‘The Sense of an Ending’ is soaked with his profound axioms, it flies like a swan. It is a clever book that deals in ‘damage’, death and betrayal almost in an undertone through the candy floss of memory. It is fully worth its slender weight in Booker that it almost didn’t win!

The Sense of an Ending

Author: Julian Barnes


  1. High time nostalgia were put to some seriously critical analysis! I am provoked by the immensely interesting argument that the book tries to make. Personally have always been in two minds regarding the authenticity of the past that we so often quote and rely on for justifying or ridiculing the state of affairs in the present. Thanks for this review. Hope to read it sometime. Sounds like a fresh take on the way we have come to think of ourselves as a people!

  2. Amit, it is a compelling book that has made many read it twice over. I have myself pondered at the malleability of memory and discovered I am no more too sure of many memories from my past now!

  3. You’re a prolific reader, it appears, Umshankar! I haven’t read Julian Barnes’ as yet. Your review seems to suggest that this is a book full of emotions and that’s the stuff I find compelling. I’m going to download soon and have a read.

  4. Intriguing. I am actually being introduced to many new authors by your blog and I am happy for that 🙂 btw, liked the new look of the blog.

  5. Sounds good. I love the language you use in your reviews. Although I don’t really read many books on relationships and romance, this book sounds interesting with all the undercurrents in it. Might just pick it up!

  6. “what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.” I would probably buy this book based on just this statement. 🙂 What a powerful statement.

    Just the other day, my brothers and I were reminiscing about our Nanaji, who was something of an eccentric genius. We got talking about one particular incident and our memories of it were so different. I now think that we must have seen something totally different.

    Once again a great review , Umashankar.

    PS: May I borrow this book?

    1. True, memories have a dreamlike quality. And I haven’t read a better book that has captured the essence.

      Thank you, Sudhagee; I’ll take care of your postscript.

  7. Surely, this review is going to entice many readers to grab the book at the earliest, Umashankar. I haven’t read this particular book, but have read ‘Porcupine’…though I’do not often read political novels, but I enjoyed reading this one. The engaging court scenes/ arguments were crisp, sharp, biting! My hub read it first and then almost forced me to start reading it…
    Now, I’d like to read this novel. Thanks!!

  8. It sounds like a maze of memories and events and pretty compelling ones at that. We often only remember what we want to, what we like and what we think it should be, don’t we? Wonder when I will get down to reading the spate of books being reviewed here and by Sudha 😀

  9. The play of words in anything you write is so beautiful. I just want to go over the same words again and again. It is like poetry. Love the new look of the blog.

  10. 34 people are waiting for this book in our library. Have to try my luck on the 5th of OCT when this book might be seen on the Express checkout list. Am curious as to how you are picking these books? 🙂 Need I say, your review would want anyone to grab the book?

  11. Another fascinating and highly review. You seem to be reading a lot these days. I can relate to the theme of the book a lot, I am sure you can guess why.

  12. Dear Mr Uma shankar, You were missing from blogosphere for a while and I must tell you your presence was missed. I certainly missed your comments on my Blog. Anyway its great to read this review. This book has been lying temptingly on my neighbour’s table and she has been vouching for it. Now that you have recommended it I have to pick it up. Great review. And memories are really interesting . It is of course a boon that they transform themselves otherwise life would not be livable

    1. Varsha, malleability of memory could be Nature’s tool to make life more palatable, as you say. Do read that book.

      Sorry for being invisible although I’d like to believe I have been very much around! I do read your posts. 🙂

  13. Man, you can write!

    Loved the profusion of words that cascaded over me like a torrent. Enjoyed the rush of the current as your narration took me on an introspective journey – as I read my mind kept lapsing into thoughts about childhood, adulthood and the relationships that have been woven into what we call life.

    My own thoughts about people and events tell me that the author is right saying what he has written.

    I must read this book – you have made a compelling pitch.

    Thank you for this wonderful review.

  14. You are a master story teller and an even better ( if that was possible) book analyst. The book, I guess makes one ponder a lot…..Such books remain with the reader long after the last page is turned.

    What bombastic angrezi…..I am still reeling under the after effect.

  15. Wow as usual fantastic writing USP bhai. Went through your review after a long time & you know the reason, am busy with my stuff :), fan of your skills and treasure of vocabulary. By the way, this combination of colour scheme is soothing your writing and seems very cool and attractive. Keep going…. All the best !!!

  16. Now this seems like one fantastic book I will certainly relish reading. I have a strong liking to intelligent and complex writing and books and this certainly appears damn good. And its greatness has been accentuated by your absolutely fantastic review. Your review is as cerebral as the book sounds to be. I am taken by the whole concept of this story and this is certainly going to go to the top of my “to read” list. Thanks for the wonderful recommendation and the extraordinary review (as always). 🙂

  17. Your comments infuse a breath of life in my tender confidence. This one indeed is a fantastic gem; I am happy to have sparked your interest in it. A million thanks to you, Raju!

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