Saturday, 5 January 2013

The Sense of an Ending


Does character develop over time? In novels of course it does: otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story. [103]

When I first approached this book it was with a sense of trepidation.
With a pile of books already waiting on my bedside table, I took my Mum’s suggestion and read this post-Booker Prize novel.
There’s definitely a stigma attached to a Booker Prize book, for me at least. I entered into it expecting each word or phrase to be something intensely profound, some fantastical way of using language I’d barely even imagined.  
The Sense of an Ending did not do that.
But, I enjoyed it.
Put simply, it is a good book.  But I didn’t think it was a great one.

At first I sort of plodded my way through the pages of the book, following Anthony Webster’s life from school to retirement.  The entire first part of the novel is a 56-page retelling of Tony’s outstandingly average life.
The Sense of an Ending is in itself a great reflection of reality; every event seems natural in its structure and scope and it’s all pretty believable. Barnes is fantastic at reflecting life and all it’s little nuances.
But for me this raised a question: How realistic can you be before becoming mundane? Tony’s life seemed so unremarkable; every character seemed like someone I sort of knew or had met before and most situations were the sort we all experience.  It was all very… normal. And yes, to an extent this is brilliant. Writers often strive to make their world seem real, to simulate real life and have the reader feel they were part of it. But I was getting a bit bored of Barnes’ world. Tony sums it up rather nicely at the end of Part 1:

It’s been interesting to me, though I wouldn’t complain if other found it less so [56]

Less so indeed, Tony.
I was a bit bored. That was, until Veronica.

Veronica, Tony’s university ex is clearly the defining figure here.  She is established in the first half and she added a bit of colour then. But it’s in the second that she becomes the central mystery and interest to the novel. She was the reason I’d lean back out of the book, go ‘WHAT?’ and actually keep reading. I’m a sucker for a story with a mysterious character. I still remember reading The Great Gatsby for the first time and being pulled along by the revelations of whom the enigmatic Gatsby really was.
Now, Veronica is no Gatsby. Her backstory is a tad more grounded than his and there’s no extravagant parties or dramatic events where we meet her, only a couple of meetings in M&S and a Volkswagen Polo. But, Veronica is exactly what the book needs. She breaks the expectations of the reader, acting strangely and out of the norm. And when you learn more about her, including a great revelation at the climax of the book, you’re interested again.

Yes, aptly it is the ending that is the most dynamic and gripping part of the novel. I’ve found that at the end of a good book there’s this feeling, described by some as a ‘Book Hangover’. You feel like somehow you’ve been changed by the words you’ve read and been so wrapped up in its world that you’re not quite the same as when you started.
And though Barnes’ novel certainly wasn’t life changing for me, the end did leave me feeling satisfied. It tied up nicely and explained things for me. And it left me with a few things to think about.

There’s something to be said about capturing stream-of-consciousness and memory here too. Barnes does a good job at showing the tangents that the mind goes off into, the little ideas that pop into your head and memories that unearth themselves. I always enjoy explorations of memory and storytelling and how character is built through because it is so integral to a book. I learnt a lot about Tony in just 150 pages through clever little tidbits of information and well-placed flashbacks.
Barnes also sprinkles little mini-discussions on the idea of the novel into the book, which do elevate the novel above a simple mystery or love story. They’re a little contrived; most of them seem pretty obviously to be Barnes questioning the reader, rather than Tony speaking his mind. But, they were interesting and thought provoking, and that’s something I found myself needing from the book.

Barnes defends Tony’s blandness in these, where he reveals that although Tony once wanted to ‘live as people in novels live, and have lived’ [93] he played it safe instead and ‘would never do those things adolescence had dreamt about’.
This I do admire. That Barnes, and even Tony, recognises the plainness of most of the events of the novel. By addressing it, it’s clear that they’re meant to be a bit dull, they’re meant to be everyday because that’s what Barnes is showing.
And that’s all good. The book is a great reflection of what it feels like to look back and feel you’ve been missing out. But, and maybe it’s my own adolescence speaking, I just needed something more.

The Sense of an Ending was not perfect.  It was not an instant classic for me, and I might forget about most of it at some point. But. It was a well-observed foray into one average mans life and it was a generally witty and well-written book. And you know what? The end wasn’t half bad either.

Jack Rigby

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