Book review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Cover of The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

In The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes has written with an understated courage about the tragedy of a man’s coming face to face with his own failings and self-deception near the end of his life.

It’s a sad book because the protagonist, Anthony Webster, gains his wisdom too late—by his own estimation. It’s too late to change his mistakes or to make amends for them. All he has left is “regret, guilt and remorse”—with remorse being the strongest and most terrible of the three, according to Anthony.

Yet it’s a beautiful book, because it is beautifully written. Anthony is carefully, sympathetically drawn. He is a kind of Everyman. He is not evil (though when shown a letter he had written four decades earlier, he is shocked by his own jealousy-provoked viciousness); rather he is by turns bumbling, self-centred, passive, and insensitive. I can only gasp at Barnes’s writing skill; somehow, he makes us like Anthony in spite of (or because of?) his ordinariness, his lack of heroic qualities.

The Sense of an Ending is a very good novel until the last four pages. But it’s the shocker ending that most displays the author’s virtuosity. Like Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, like Bill Gaston’s The Good Body, this is a book that demands rereading to figure out just how the writer was able to put it all together with such ingenuity.

I don’t have to give away the ending to explain the source of the book’s power. I think it comes from the comparison of our own lives with Anthony’s. If we are old, do we share his emotions, or have we lived more fully? If we are middle-aged, this book is a warning. Anthony’s revelations come too late. There were points in his life when he could have been more honest with himself and others about what he felt and what he wanted. He could have made other choices instead of going with the current, following the path of least resistance.

I don’t need Anthony’s warning.

Going through a textbook mid-life crisis, I changed my life completely between the ages of 48 and 52. Some of the choices I made were planned—going back to school to train for a new career as a writer and leaving my husband—but others were not. I didn’t count on wrecking my knee and losing my running career, which was such a big part of my identity. I didn’t know my coach George Gluppe’s health would deteriorate rapidly and that he would pass away last April. I wouldn’t have chosen to have everything in my life go all topsy-turvy within the space of a few years.

But there were many stimulating and joyful beginnings, times of being amazed by the realization: It’s not too late!
There are also those middle-of-the-night times of panic, when the darkness spreads to gut-deep despair and my fear: I’ve left it too late!

But I can only start from today, and welcome my unfolding new life. I don’t know how it will all turn out. I don’t know what my “sense of an ending” will be, two or three or four decades from now (if I live that long). All I can know for sure is that I won’t share Anthony’s remorse about not having tried to change.

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