"We were book hungry."
So says the group of four British schoolboys we are first introduced to in Julian Barnes’ newest novel The Sense of an Ending, a small but powerful book that is rich with psychological complexity and observant insight into the human life.
The novel begins in boyhood; we are put into the mind of narrator Tony Webster, an observant but rather average boy whose main concerns are his three best friends and his studies. The friends have an intellectual curiosity, a yearning for their lives to be intellectually informed (a youthful intellectualism that felt sadly rather foreign to a modern American ear). “This was one of our fears,” says Tony, “that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature. Look at our parents—were they the stuff of Literature? At best, they might aspire to be the condition of onlookers and bystanders, part of a social backdrop against which real, true, important things could happen.” The comment is a bit of a foreshadowing, as of course Tony’s life turns out to be just that: not extraordinary in the least, but rather marked by small events that shape the man he turns out to be. Barnes, I could guess, isn’t one for sensationalist literature.
According to Tony, the most extraordinary person in his life is Adrian, the enigmatic new kid he and his friends eagerly welcome to their group in elementary school. Adrian has the brilliance that Tony and his friends yearn for, the ability to answer to their history teacher’s questions in such an insightful way that it silences the entire class. The Sense of an Ending is thus shaped by Tony’s perception of himself in relation to someone extraordinary like Adrian. It’s only when Adrian starts dating Tony’s first girlfriend that their relation takes on a meaning that Tony didn’t think possible.
Reading The Sense of an Ending felt like drinking a strong cup of tea in a dimly lit British hotel. Barnes, who is from London, writes with a British properness that’s much more difficult to find in an American writer. Though it can occasionally veer into stuffiness, Barnes’ Britishness and literariness (his late wife was a literary critic, his brother is a philosopher) for the most part translates very well onto his page. The day after I read The Sense of an Ending (I read Part 1, went up to get a cup of tea, then sat back down and finished it), I read a blurb in the Chicago Sun-Times that said Mayor Rahm Emanuel recommended the book to a woman on the El. Regardless of politics, it was a delight to see our Mayor bringing literature into the news cycle. Rahm recommended The Sense of an Ending, and now I am recommending it to you.
Time taken: It’s a short one that packs a punch. The entire book takes about an hour to read.
Worth reading: Do you like tea? Is it unfair of me to assume that liking a particular beverage will guarantee your liking of this book? Maybe. But I really do think that if you like tea, you’ll like this book. Maybe it’s safer to say that if you like more philosophical prose with a tendency toward politeness, you’ll probably like The Sense of an Ending. Barnes is without question a very talented writer.