Book Review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

I ordered this book as soon as I could after I learned that it had won the 2011 Man Booker Prize and had read some reviews.  The subject matter fascinated me.  I too am aging and am confronted with a sense of my own mortality, and I was anxious to see how a gifted writer would approach the many facets and ramifications of such a state of existence.

When the book arrived the first thing that surprised me was its length.  It is a very small, slim volume, little more than a novella.  No matter.  One of my favorite books is a novella, Ernest Hemingway’s classic “The Old Man and the Sea” – a story that approaches the theme of age from a very different perspective indeed.

So I began to read, and shortly I became aware that, despite its brevity, for me at least it was slow going.  I have encountered this problem before with British writers and their novels, in particular with Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel “Never Let Me Go”.  The background goes on and on and I have to hang on hoping that the pace will eventually pick up.  In Ishiguro’s novel’s case it was over 100 pages in before the novel got really absorbing.  In the case of “The Sense of an Ending” it was faster – 100 pages would have almost finished the book.  It is told in two parts:  first the protagonist/narrator’s school days with his buddies and his relationship with a certain girlfriend, and then about forty years later as he looks back on it all and re-establishes contact with the woman.  I don’t want to give away the ending, because it does build up to a wicked denouement.  There is just so much beforehand that leaves the reader baffled.  That’s the main trouble I had with this novel.  Don’t get me wrong – I don’t mind being left in the dark by a writer who is preparing for a mind-blasting ending.  But there has to be something of fascination along the way, and I didn’t feel there was enough of that.

Okay, I admit that maybe this novel just wasn’t my cup of tea.  It was certainly well-written, I have no hesitation in acknowledging that.  I was hoping though, for something fuller, richer, something that delved deeply into what the main character felt as age ravaged his body, negated all that he had accomplished in a mediocre life, sapped him of his vitality and his memories.  Obviously that’s not what Barnes had in mind.  Maybe I’ll have to write that one myself.  To me the protagonist was too much of a milquetoast, too passive; it seems to me he should have had something better to do than – nothing, other than pursue the fascination for digging up the past that is at the heart of the plot.

Anyway, it is well-written, as I said, and it has received a lot of acclaim, and I enjoyed the reading experience.  Just not as much as I thought I would.

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

  1. Matthew ( says:

    Sorry to hear this didn’t quite live up to your expectations. I certainly agree that the plot hardly rockets along in comparison to some books, but I really did enjoy this short read. It’s interesting that you identify it as a British trait, perhaps the style doesn’t translate particularly well.

    My review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

    • John Walters says:

      I don’t know what it is, as I enjoy a slow, thoughtful read as well as a fast-paced one. Maybe it’s just a matter of taste. Anyway, thanks for commenting.

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