Quick Book Review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Rating: 4.5/5 stars
I read this in: Dutch (Alsof het voorbij is), the original language is English
Number of pages: 160
First published: 2011
Genre: contemporary fiction, literary fiction

This book won the 2011 Man Booker Prize. That was not the reason I started reading this, but it did make me wonder if it would be any good. Well yes, I don’t care much about literary prizes and more often than not, I don’t actually like the winner at all. For instance, The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson, winner in 2010, I didn’t even finish (review forthcoming).

Anyway, this book, The Sense of an Ending, I read because of a meeting of Dutch book bloggers where we would discuss this. I finished it and I even enjoyed it and appreciated it for its artistic beauty. Yay!

So let’s see. What is it about? Tony Webster is a middle aged man who, in the first part of the book, looks back on his life, especially his years at school, his friends and his marriage. He has a daughter but no longer lives with his wife, although they are still friends and meet up every now and then.

In the second part of the book, he gets a letter from a solicitor to tell him the mother of a former girlfriend has left him some money and two documents. After reading the documents and getting back into contact with his old girlfriend, he discovers that his memory of the past doesn’t agree with what actually happened.

This was a short book and not a difficult read, as you might expect. It’s a story that continues after you finish the book, though, as then, you discover the riches of this small book. At least, that’s what happened when I discussed this book with the book bloggers I met up with a few weeks ago.

Dutch book bloggers meeting in March 2012

We decided that this was a complete story, quite as intricate as many much longer books. We had a “how about this, then, and how about that?” and there was always one of us who had an answer or saw the connection between the events in the two parts of the book.

The book is ideal for discussing with others, especially for me, as I would not by myself have found so much in the book that wasn’t explicitly mentioned but still present.

A good book, then, for the more literary minded reading groups.

Have you read this?

Or are you planning to?

About Leeswammes
I'm owner and editor at bookhelpline.com. In my free time, I read and review books on my two blogs, Leeswammes' Blog and De Boekblogger.

40 Responses to Quick Book Review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

  1. I agree, it was a great book and an excellent, inspiring discussion. I, too, discovered new vistas, even though I thought that I had read the book very carefully. Let’s hope that the book for our next meeting will be just as interesting.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Anna, yes, you seem to read books much more carefully than me so it’s nice that even so you found the discussion useful.

      Do we have a book for the next meeting? I can’t remember…

      • No Judith, we don’t have a new book yet, but suggestions are welcome, of course. I recently finished (but haven’t reviewed yet) a book that might be a good choice, but maybe one of the others has a better one. We’ll see when we have a new date. I am already looking forward to another great discussion.

      • Leeswammes says:

        Me too! Maybe The Submission by Amy Waldman might be a good choice. About a contest for a monument on the Twin Towers site that is won by a Muslim. Should at least give some interesting general discussion.

  2. Well, that’s all very good news since I picked this book for my bookclub to discuss in May. I’ve got the book at home right now and should be reading it in the next week or so. I hope my group will get as much out of it as yours obviously did.

  3. Ally says:

    I have a problem commenting via wordpress… Let’s see if it works now 🙂
    I am half way though finishing this book as well. It’s my 5th or 6th Barnes, and I love the fine way in which he can describe important topics. I previously read “Nothing to be frightened of” and it is a fantastic book. I can’t wait to see how this ends 🙂

  4. I loved this book – so thought provoking. I can imagine it was an interesting discussion for your group. Great picture.

  5. bibliosue says:

    Yours is the first review to have me contemplating actually reading this novel.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Suzanne, I thought it was a good book, but after the discussion with the group, I was even more enthusiastic. It really helps being able to discuss it with others. But even if you can’t, it’s a good read.

  6. Trish says:

    Wish I had known this was good for club discussing last week when I was submitting a suggestion for our next meeting! I’ve been curious about this one but have heard some mixed reviews (mostly related to the ending, I think–maybe related to the feeling of being unfinished?). my library has an audio copy–do you think it would be a good one to listen to or better to read?

    • Leeswammes says:

      Hard to say, Trish, as I usually read books because I’m more visually oriented. I think the ending WAS finished, but only if you think about it in detail. Or discuss it with your group. If you read the end, then put the book down and start doing other things, you may not quite “get it”.

  7. Excellent idea. We’ll put it to the vote as soon as we have a date!

  8. HI– I am looking for answers about this book– I am in a threesome of women that call itself a book group. One woman had an interesting interpretation that I didn;t see– so I was wondering what others though ( SPOILER ALERT) My friend thought that Veronica was intentionally luring men back to her home to sleep with her mother…getting them worked up, and then disappearing on the walk for the purposes of letting her mother seduce them. Do you agree with this analysis?

    • Leeswammes says:

      Thanks for your comment, Miriam. Your friend’s idea crossed my mind at some point but I’m not sure. Maybe one of my other commenters has a better idea on this?

      • I am reading comments on another blog and came across this interpretation:::

        1) Sarah is not Veronica’s mother (this is all but explicitly stated as Jane Fairfax pointed out).

        2) Sarah is also not Jack’s mother. She is only “The Mother”.

        3) Veronica has a second brother: Adrian. They never visited Adrian’s house, so Tony wouldn’t know.

        4) Veronica is “Robson’s Girl”. The pregnancy was not caused by Robson (the cuckold), but by her brother Adrian.

        5) Adrian Junior is the son of brother and sister: Veronica and Adrian.

        This explains:

        – Why Adrian put into question Robson paternity. He knew very well that he himself was the father.
        – Why Veronica was “damaged”: she had an abortion of the child she carried from her own brother. Tony said they had no idea about the identity of Robson’s girl, she would have to be his age now, he wanted to apologize to her.
        – Sarah had no kids herself (as the Biblical analysis above pointed out), and Veronica’s friends were taken home to conceive one (“sleeping in” while the rest of the family went for a walk) because daddy was too drunk. “This one will do” (for Mom that is).
        – Veronica knew perfectly well what Adrian was “reading” in Cambridge (“thank you very much”) because he was her brother.
        – Both brothers were at Cambridge, and apparently one (Adrian) did not approve of the other (Jack). “That lack of seriousness”.
        – “Damaged” Veronica really loved Tony but felt inhibited (= not going “all the way”) after what happened to her. After being rejected she “fell back” to Adrian, the person she adored but could not have a real relationship with.
        – Adrian made the same mistake twice, made Veronica pregnant again, and realized that he now really owed Robson and follow his example.
        – Being the child of brother and sister, Adrian Jr. was less than perfect.

        Tony was supposed to have impregnated both Veronica and The Mother, but failed at both.

      • Leeswammes says:

        Oh my, that goes a bit too far for me, Miriam! I should mention that I read the book over a month ago, and I usually don’t even remember as much as I have of this book.

        I think the analysis might be a little far-fetched, but then, it’s a novel, a made-up story, and that can very well be far-fetched. I would have to have another good look at the book to see if it all makes sense to me (however, it was a library book).

        Miriam, if you more or less literally took this analysis from someone else’s website, can you please put a link to that website, so they can be acknowledged? Thanks!

    • Sue says:

      No. I can’t believe that theory. I think the mother was only looking out for the welfare of her daughter (hence the letter writing) but Tony misinterprets/confuses her egg flipping and her careless comment along the lines of “don’t let Veronica get away with anything!”. After all, Veronica had cleared off with her brother and father, leaving her mother to have to cook breakfast and entertain Tony. Obviously the paternity of the baby is insignificant from Barnes perspective, and is not important for the structure of the story.
      But there are several interpretations, and Barnes probably delights in the ambiguity of the ending: most probable from my own reading are that either Tony or Adrian is the father. Nothing else makes proper sense for me. However the response of the adult “child” towards Tony, suggests he (the child) may sense a similarity between himself and Tony, and that is why he is disturbed by his presence. But all of this is mere speculation. The paternity is not the important issue. The issue is with Tony and his renewed “understanding” of his past.

  9. I am glad you liked this so much, Judith… Like you, I need other people to point out things I miss on my own, so I’m going to read the comments you received after I have read the book. I hope I will get to it soon.

    • Leeswammes says:

      That’s a good idea, Nadine. And the sooner after you read the book, the better. By now, I’ve forgotten a lot of the details so it’s hard to discuss it in depth – I should have written and posted this review sooner!

    @Miriam. It seems to me that the person who thought up the above has either been watching far too many soap operas or was pulling your leg 😉 I don’t think there is anything in the book to warrant that sort of interpretation. I know the family relationship turns out different than Tony originally thought, but there’s a point to that, a literary one, by which I mean that it is not just a plot device to confuse the readers (the point of course being the need for a radical reinterpretation of Tony’s own actions, his values and his evaluation of the people concerned).
    As for your suggestion that Veronica may be ‘pimping’ for her mother: maybe, but it doen’t seem very likely to me. After all, it’s the mother who warns Tony for her daughter. But still, you may have a point. I have read the same interpretation elsewhere.

    • Totally agree with you Anna. I don’t think we are meant to see too much of a “mystery” here regarding Sarah-Veronica-Adrian. I think we should take it pretty much at face value (with a few questions not completely tied up such as why Sarah decided to leave Tony some money). The main point is not what was going on between those three but with the issue of memory and how one can construct a few of oneself based on things that later turn out to be not quite as one remembered. It’s Tony who is the focus here and his memory and his values … at least, that’s how I see it. (Have just read and reviewed it … and also discussed it in my reading group. It’s a great book for discussion).

      • Leeswammes says:

        Whisperinggums, definitely a great book for discussion, but yes, you can over-analyse and see more in the book than the author had planned.

  11. Athira says:

    I’m really intrigued now. I’ve heard about this book on and off for a while now, but for some reason, I haven’t been taking that next step to reading it.

    • Leeswammes says:

      It’s only a short book, Athira, so if you can easily get it, it won’t take up much of your reading time – but maybe of your thinking time!

  12. JoV says:

    I would like to read this one day! It’s slim, it’s insightful, why not? Thanks for sharing a picture of your book club members, they all look so happy!

    • Leeswammes says:

      Jo, I think you will enjoy it – and yes, it’s not a big book.

      The picture is a group of Dutch book bloggers who meet occasionally and we discussed this book at the last meeting. Some of us hadn’t met each other yet – it’s a nice group of very different people who all love reading.

  13. This is on my TBR and I’m really looking forward to reading it. I like books that question the veracity of memory, though I’ve just read a few of them in a row so I might need to read something more straightforward in-between!

  14. Matthew (Bibliofreak.net) says:

    I’d definitely agree that this is a fully-formed story, although short. I’d also agree that it’s a great book for groups to discuss. I recently read it for a book club, and it definitely offered plenty to talk about.

    My review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

    • Leeswammes says:

      Thanks for your link, Matthew, I’ll have a look.

      Great to see that you read it for book club, it’s ideal for that.

      • Care says:

        I agree and agree. Unfortunately, I don’t think my club would like it. not at all. They like plot plot plot. Which is why this comment thread is so interesting!

      • Leeswammes says:

        Thanks Care. Reading back (since I saw that you linked to this post from your blog) I realised it was an interesting discussion. A pity your book group is not the kind of group that would enjoy it. I am not normally into analysing a story very deeply, but in this case, it was really good fun.

  15. Pingback: The Sense of an Ending « Care's Online Book Club

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