Sunday, 6 November 2011

The Sense of an Ending - award winning believability

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape: 2011) A short novel written in the first person. Tony Webster looks back on his life and the few key relationships that shaped it, memories triggered by the fate of one of his closest and enigmatic friends.
Got to try the big award winners, right? These are the books that all the pros reckon will end up being the lasters, the ones that survive time and end up being remembered. According to those in the know, these books are the best of the best of what’s around today. That’s why they give them the prizes (obvs).
Once a year, the Man Booker Prize is given out, and the book it’s given too presumably enjoys an ugly upward spike in its sales for a few weeks. I usually do my bit to contribute to that spike (it's nice to take part), the more so this year as the winner was a novella, so a quick read, which I like.
I’ve read a few Man Booker Prize winners (even reviewed one of them here), and they’ve all been quite different from each other. Which is good. And which happened again this time.
The Sense of an Ending has a really simple premise. A man looking back on his life, questioning the reliability of memory, the nature of history, and learning new things about himself and his past.
So simple in fact that it has the danger of being a bit boring. The tactics used to avoid that fate? Well, the usual ones to be honest. A sharp and engaging writing style. Thoughtful and intelligent insights. A few gentle twists sparingly but effectively used. A well staggered exploration of character.
My pulse never raced and my blood never boiled. I stayed well and truly in the middle of my seat throughout. But my brain was certainly engaged, and my heart was too. Barnes achieves a realistic and believable portrayal of a man preoccupied (but not overwhelmed) by the nostalgia of his life. I felt I was in a conversation with Tony Webster. I’m not sure I entirely liked the guy, but he was at least real.
And that’s a trick not to be underestimated. We’ve all read books that are driven by fantastic plots, but where the main characters take on the qualities of Hollywood stars – the kind that, were they to stand in front of you, you’d have to reach out and touch to make sure they were real, and even then they seem more natural on the pages of magazine rather than in the same world as us. Tony Webster is not like that. If he sat in my living room, I’d probably offer him a cup of tea. There’d be little (if any) awe. That I can imagine serving this entirely fictional character a cup of Tetley’s is testament to the powers of Julian Barnes.
But does all this make for a good book? Well, I think it makes for a great novella. Barnes told his story and gave it the right length. He didn’t stretch it out. If he did, he’d either have to keep true to the characters (in which case, it’d probably get boring after a while), or he’d have to give them new qualities, (in which case he’d sacrifice the believability of the book).
I enjoyed reading this. It made me think (more) about the nature of memory. It created connection between its pages and me that I felt strongly, which meant I cared a lot more than I perhaps should have about a relatively ordinary plot. And that’s important. There needn’t be explosions for a book to be good, you simply have to be made to care about what happens.
And I did.
Love this book? No, I probably didn’t. But I was very fond of it. A more pedestrian emotion, but a real one. Probably quite apt.
Next week, a book by an author I’ve reviewed before on here. Which is a first. I'm sure you're very excited.

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