17 August 2015

Review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Mass market paperback, 150 pages
Published 2012 (originally 2011)
Acquired January 2015
Read July 2015
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Maybe it's a sign of aging (I turned, gasp, thirty last month), but I've been thinking recently about how much of our culture's stories are about youth. So many of our stories are about young people doing young things, like falling in love, getting married, and so on-- especially in these days of the YA explosion. But being young occupies a surprisingly small part of your life; you're in high school much less than you'll encounter stories about being in high school. (It was the Up series that drove this home to me, oddly enough; many more of its installments are about "growing old" than "being young.")

So perhaps I was primed to read this novel (novella, probably). The first third or so is about all that youthful stuff: going to school, making friends, dating. It's pretty good. Though these are stories you've heard before, Julian Barnes has got the touch to make them work. From A History of the World in 10½ Chapters onwards, I've always been impressed with how he writes; Arthur & George, I often say, is one of those rare books to be both well-written and well-plotted.

But the bulk of The Sense of an Ending is not about youth. It's about what you do when you've done everything, when you've gotten married, gotten divorced, raised your kids, worked your job, settled down. When you start to look back and remember what your life was like and think about who you really are. Not much happens in this book in absolute terms, but Barnes captures the constant stream of thoughts that move through our minds and turns them into the drama they really are. What's at stake is both self-perception and the understanding of others, and it's almost unsurprising how this seems to turn into a thriller as it goes on. Even when I'd worked it all out, I was still wrong and there was more to learn. Growing old can be gripping, and it can be gripping reading.

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