The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes won the Booker Prize last year, so as you might anticipate there was a bit of a waiting list at the library. At almost exactly 150 pages the judges definitely plumped for quality over quantity; I could not fault it, there is hardly a word out of place.
So, there's Tony, he was young once, but now he's an old bloke, and events occur that challenge his memory of things that happened. He and Colin and Alex are a trio, joined by the slightly enigmatic Adrian, and he paints for the reader a telling portrait of young men in the prime of egotism. They think they know it all, have all the answers, even when confronted by the suicide of a fellow schoolboy. We follow Tony and his friendships through his university years until he receives some shocking news, and then in a matter of no more than a few sentences we fast forward through his entire life to the moment, at age 60 something, when he receives a solicitor's letter that stirs up all sorts of old memories.
I m going to string some quotes together, because they seem to go together, to say something that the book is trying to say. It is about time, and history and people's lives and how they see them, from the beginning and then again in retrospect.
"It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we were young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others." (p.80)
"The odder part was that it was easy to give this version of my history because that's what I'd been telling myself anyway. I viewed my time with Veronica as a failure - her contempt, my humiliation - and expunged it from the record." (p.69)
"But time ... how time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them. Time ... give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical." (p.93)
"How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but - mainly - to ourselves." (p.95)
I think the last of these is most telling, "our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life", and such is the story in this book. Tony thought he knew things about himself and his life, about the people he had known. He admits to himself that he chose to live 'safe' without risks or adventure, but then seems to judge himself very harshly for that. I am not so sure it is such a terrible thing. But then Veronica also seems to accuse him silently (for she never puts it into words), blame him for consequences that he could not have foreseen or understood, nor in reality be held responsible for. It is a good book because it raises all these things, all this thinking, the subtleties of how people view their own lives and the importance we attach to the tiniest of events. It is the more authentic side of the coin that has nostalgia on the reverse, a looking back and a real trying to understand how things turned out, the inevitability of regret and inability to make amends, just having to live with it. And it is the story of the human condition really, we all have things that we wish could have been different.