If Julian Barnes’s Booker Prize-winner is biographical, then the contents constitute a fascinating contradiction. The Sense of an Ending mourns the loss of innocence, of adolescent zest, and youthful ecstasy – but the writing is a powerful demonstration of mature creative strength.
Barnes may have his regrets (and who does not?) but this encapsulation of suburban man’s quiet despair, enlivened by the absurdities of everyday life, is amusingly accurate and emotionally honest.
Tony, the middle-aged protagonist, makes haste to disavow sentimentality about his schooldays, then contrarily proceeds to recall with ill-disguised pleasure those times of excitement and camaraderie. Clearly, adult life in modest circumstances has not lived up to the promise of youth.
Barnes does a significant service to those many who, perhaps only half-consciously, are in a similar case. His memories are funny, disturbing, simultaneously individual and universal. Those who have expunged memories of the cringe-making embarrassments and humiliations of the spotty years would do well to revisit them in Ending.
Nevertheless, Barnes shows that adolescence is the high point of many a lifetime. The enforced intimacy of communal life, mutual curiosity and shared experience, tend to create formative relationships. School friendships may not survive much beyond the occasional Old Persons’ booze-up, but vivid recollections of what they were in that time of giddy hope and fear provide telling insights into the grown specimen.
It helps the telling of the tale that, as in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, the central characters are clever. Three bright boys, plus a young genius and one enigmatic girl express themselves intelligently. Yes, they are often pretentious, in the awkwardness of those years, but all are endearing.
What have they become? There’s the rub. And just when you anticipate disappointment, Barnes provides sharp reminders of the mysterious unpredictabilities of life.
Ending initially echoes the vitality of the play/film The History Boys. There is no attempt to edit the less edifying aspects and awkward hormonal plight of the group, and lots of opportunities to grin at remembered gaucherie.
Looming post-retirement glooms inspire Tony to play detective in a tense attempt at making sense of the past. The past turns out to be less complicated than the present. Perhaps it always is.
Tony recalls: “I remember a period in late adolescence when my mind would make itself drunk with images of adventurousness. This is how it will be when I grow up, I shall go there, do this, discover that, love her, and then her, and her and her.”
In his late twenties he realises: “I would never do those things adolescence had dreamt about. Instead, I mowed my lawn, I took holidays, I had a life.”
Then the mature Tony’s research becomes a teasing, dark adventure.
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