Have you ever read a book which, try as you might, defies analysis of any kind as you read it? Every time you try to intellectually distance yourself from the work to analyse what makes it so good, the power of the text draws you back in anyway, making your efforts seem like child’s play. I’ve experienced this a few times as a reader, but never more so than when reading Julian Barnes’ thoughtful meditation on ageing, memory and regret, “The Sense of an Ending”.
First things first, and this is important to note – I am not the audience this book was written for. This book is aimed at middle aged and older people who can empathise with our narrator because they find common ground in their life experiences or outlook. I am not even part of the narrator’s generation, so the number of elements recognisably shared between his sixth form days (which comprise the first part of the book) and mine are significantly reduced. So I will say again: I am in no way part of the target demographic that Barnes had in mind as he wrote this novel. And this is what makes the novel remarkable – completely in spite of this, it had an undeniable emotional impact for me which I find difficult to put my finger on.
The only word I can imagine that would accurately describe my feelings as I read the novel is, alas, not a real one – I felt a strong sense of pre-gret. I felt second-hand shame for wasting my life and not accomplishing anything; I felt the guilt of a man more than three times my age who regrets decisions which I have never made, and hopefully never will. Our narrator, Tony Webster, is a man who simultaneously finds himself boring yet repulsive when he considers his actions both past and present, and yet he is made interesting and sympathetic to the reader because of Barnes’ stunning use of metaphor and narratorial commentary on human nature and the ageing process. This is a novel of such powerful writing that even a(n admittedly brilliant) twist ending barely makes an impact on what I loved about the novel.
Like the best of books, “Ending” placed me in historical contexts and in the company of people that I would never normal find myself, opening my eyes to whole new planes of experience in an emotionally involving way. It is bittersweet, poignant and far more weighty than its slim size would suggest. I aim to recommend it to as many people as I can – to older people, in the hope it provides them with a little solace as they approach Tony’s age and outlook, and to younger people, in the hope that it helps them reflect on the transience of youth, the power of memory and the importance of both.