Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

I don’t remember everything about being a teenager, mostly the big events and the embarrassing stuff I wish I could forget.  I do remember what it felt like to be a teenager though.  And I have only read a few books in my life that really get that feeling across.  The Sense of an Ending is one of those books.

The story is told in two parts.  The first section has the narrator, Anthony, recounting his days at prep school and university.  He introduces his friends Alex and Colin and eventually the new addition to their group, Adrian.  The typical school boy activities take place but Anthony is remembering these things.  He mentions several times how he could have been wrong and even presents alternate dialogues or events, freely admitting that he (and his memory) is not a reliable narrator.  The interactions among the friends and their teachers and the overall descriptions of life at that time (early 60s) make the first section quite enjoyable.  The author, Julian Barnes, is fantastic at describing how an older man would talk about his youth.  You can sense how pompous yet naïve these young men are.  They make it quite clear that they have the world entirely figured out if only adults would stop messing things up.  Then they head off to university and girls make the world much more complicated.

The second section of the story is Anthony in the present day, having to think back on his school days after an unexpected event shows a tragedy from his past in a new light.  Here, Barnes really shines while having Anthony both recount events, even some from the first section in new ways, and reflect on his present life and his life since boyhood.  Anthony tries to suss out the risks and rewards of making things happen in life (however unpleasant) and letting life happen to you (however boring).  Along the way, morality, mortality, and some mystery are added.  The Sense of an Ending is a short book and a quick read.  It is also extremely well-written both in its characterizations and its slowly uncoiling plot.

If you would like to read another novel that perfectly encapsulates being a teenage boy and also making sense of tragedy, try reading (or rereading) A Separate Peace by John Knowles.

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