“The Sense of an Ending,” the most recent novel by the English writer Julian Barnes, opens with a brief list of the narrator’s 40-year-old memories, along with a proviso that the last of them “isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”
It’s the first of many such provisos in this story of Tony Webster, a 60-something retiree living near London who has taken on a difficult project: discerning what role, if any, he may have played in a decades-old tragedy. To do that, he must persuade an old girlfriend whom he hasn’t seen or even thought of in many years to hand over a diary that is, legally at least, his property. While Tony waits for her unlikely cooperation, he has little choice but to search through his memories, excavating as best he can any details or scraps of contextual information that he has buried.
The diary belonged to Adrian Finn, the brightest and most self-assured member of Tony’s teenage friends, who bonded over history, philosophy and bons mots at an English boys’ school in the 1960s. The ex-girlfriend is Veronica Ford, whose relationship with Tony was short-lived and frustratingly chaste. What reunites the three, in a manner of speaking, after such a long time is the death of Veronica’s mother, who had been holding on to Adrian’s diary since he committed suicide not long after the boys went their separate ways.
When Tony learns that Veronica’s mother, whom he had encountered only once on an unpleasant weekend visit, has bequeathed to him 500 pounds and Adrian’s diary, he is suitably mystified. His curiosity turns into obsession upon learning that Veronica has taken the diary for herself and refuses to part with it. An e-mail campaign follows, in which Tony resolves “to be polite, unoffendable, persistent, boring, friendly: in other words, to lie.” Determined to get to the bottom of the mystery and convinced that the diary holds the key, he adopts a tone of unflappable good cheer with Veronica, who responds to his e-mails curtly, if at all.
With his characteristic grace and skill, Barnes manages to turn this cat-and-mouse game into something genuinely suspenseful, as Veronica reveals just enough information to make Tony desperate for more. A single page from the diary, which suggests a highly unusual suicide note structured along the lines of Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,” is all Veronica will allow him to see. Later, in person, she brusquely hands him a photocopy of an old letter addressed to Adrian and Veronica, penned by a young and angry Tony, in which the writer biliously wishes the new couple a speedy breakup and “a lifetime of bitterness that will poison your subsequent relationships.”
Both documents contain clues as to the nature and degree of Tony’s implication in whatever led to his friend’s suicide. But Tony — now a doting grandfather who’s amicably divorced from his wife and spends his days volunteering at a hospital library — is either too dense, or too something else, to connect the dots. And here, finally, is the central question Barnes poses in his novel: If it’s not mere thick-headedness that’s keeping Tony from seeing what actually happened back then, what is it? What is the “something else” that prevents him from identifying the nebulous shape of his own culpability?
“The Sense of an Ending” — which has been shortlisted for Britain’s Man Booker Prize, marking the fourth time Barnes has been so honored — grapples with this question and arrives at a resigned conclusion. Tony, for his part, broadcasts from the first page his doubts regarding what he’s able to recall; these doubts accrete in the text like statements from the witness stand (“I couldn’t at this distance testify,” “I can’t from here determine”), before culminating in a full-blown confession of unreliable narratorship: “I exaggerate, I misrepresent.”
Tony is telling us, or rather Barnes is, what we all know but don’t care to admit: that in writing our own authorized autobiographies, we’re contractually bound to run everything by the subject first. Things — usually the most unpleasant things — get left out. And then, over enough time, those unpleasant events are forgotten — assuming all goes smoothly, and ghostly diaries or documents don’t emerge to contest our memories. Tony puts it this way: “As the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been.” How does it make him feel to utter those words? Sad? Lucky? Tony may be an unreliable narrator, Barnes is reminding us, but don’t blame him. What choice does he have?
Turrentine is a Brooklyn-based writer and critic.
THE SENSE OF AN ENDING
By Julian Barnes
Knopf. 163 pp. $23.95