Julian Barnes continues his engagement with the impact of grief and bereavement in The Sense of an Ending, an elegant, philosophical novel about dying and living. His writing is coolly incisive, and lit with insight into human nature. Taking his title from Frank Kermode's literary criticism which explores the ways in which writers use the technique of a surprising twist to confound the reader's suppositions about the novel, we can expect from the outset that this will be a novel which will leave us puzzling over its beginnings, going over the ground again, trying to see where it was we missed the clue that would have alerted us to the final twist in the tale. Curiously, for such a slight book (it extends to no more than 150 pages), it requires a prodigious act of memory from the reader to keep abreast of the subtleties of plot and character.
The novel begins with a list of remembered things, all of which are watery, and the last of which is imagined rather than remembered, thus flagging up for us the idea that memory is elusive, protean and foundational. The truth of a memory lies in its impact upon a life, not in its reliability. Memory is what we are. We make ourselves up out of what we remember, or out of what we try to forget. Barnes' narrator, Tony Webster, navigates the choppy waters of his memories and relationships with an engaging ruefulness, though he could have perhaps used a copy of Through the Looking Glass, wherein the Queen remarks: 'It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.'
Kermode's book of essays suggests that we habitually impose false paradigms upon life and in particular, upon time, because it is in our very nature to do so: we are creatures inextricably devoted to plot. Time in its pure state is disorganised. We attempt to overcome this in fiction, and in life, by insisting upon a beginning, a middle and an end. Our plots, whether they are literary , political or personal, are the ways in which we try to make sense of chaos, but such sense is at best provisional. It creaks under pressure. "Time" Tony says "first grounds us and then confounds us".
Barnes writes with a particularly lucid economy and this is a novel which leaves you feeling you have drilled deep into remorse, understood something newly unsettling about mortality and about the memorial propitiations that a life might require.