The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes


I’m retired now. I have my flat with my possessions. I keep up with a few drinking pals, and have some women friends — platonic, of course. (And they are not part of the story either.) I’m a member of the local history society, though less excited than some about what the metal detectors unearth. A while ago, I volunteered to run the library at the local hospital; I go round the wards delivering, collecting, recommending. It gets me out, and it’s good to do something useful; also, I meet some new people. Sick people, of course; dying people as well. But at least I shall know my way around the hospital when my turn comes.

And that’s a life, isn’t it? Some achievements and some disappointments. It’s been interesting to me, though I wouldn’t complain or be amazed if others found it less so. Maybe, in a way, Adrian knew what he was doing. Not that I would have missed my own life for anything, you understand.

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

That quote comes from the end of the first section of Julian Barnes’ engaging novel/novella The Sense of an Ending (it is only 150 pages in my version) — I have bumped the quote to the top of this review because it is a concise summary of the life of the narrator, Tony Webster. Now in his early sixties, he is contemplating his approaching end, but that also means looking back at what was, or, even more important, what might have been.

As the title of the novel implies, this is a memory book. And, as the quote makes clear, Tony will be ignoring the mundane which has dominated his life (“they are not part of the story, either”). Rather, he will be considering the exceptional that has floated to the top as he looks backward at a life lived. Here is his summary of what is motivating him in this project:

And no, it wasn’t shame I now felt, or guilt, but something rarer in my life and stronger than both: remorse. A feeling which is more complicated, curdled, and primeval. Whose chief charcteristic is that nothing can be done about it: too much time has passed, too much damage has been done, for amends to be made. Even so, forty years on, I sent Veronica an email apologising for my letter.

Barnes has drawn a powerful scale for measuring the impact of things we wish we haven’t done with that paragraph. “Shame” is relatively easy to deal with, “guilt” can be assuaged at least to a point, “remorse” is the emotion that we cannot escape as a result of some things we wish we had not done.

Julian Barnes was born in 1946, I was born in 1948 — so I fit the demographic of this first-person book. As he writes elsewhere in the novel, when we are maturing we often look ahead to the ambitions we have and what we will “be” in life, including what we will think in our final decades — as youths, however, we don’t consider how we will look back on the choices that produced that state of mind. The Sense of an Ending is about both those choices and the memories (“remorse”) that they provoke several decades on.

So. Who are Adrian and Veronica?

Adrian is a student who arrives at Tony’s school late in the pre-university process, when all the students’ attention is focused on getting the grades to open the doors to what will come next. Tony is already part of a gang of three with “serious” pretensions (‘That’s philosophically self-evident’ is a favorite argument ender) but Adrian, without any initiative on his part, is absorbed into the group and makes it a foursome.

He is obviously brilliant and illustrates that on his first day at school when, challenged by the history master about the nature of history, he states that it comes down to “something happened”. (This is an elaboration on a previous contribution from another student who has amended his first definition — “there was unrest, sir” — to “I’d say there was great unrest, sir”.) In a later lesson, discussing the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand which provoked the Great War, Adrian expands his notion:

“But of course, my desire to ascribe responsibility might be more a reflection of my own cast of mind than a fair analysis of what happened. That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.”

Take that as a warning about how much credibility to ascribe to Tony’s account or, perhaps more usefully, what attitude should be taken to joining him in his exploration of a central event in his personal history. Tony’s memory expedition is centred on Veronica who may (or may not) have been his first love. Tony and Veronica met at Bristol early in his university career and she was far “smarter” than he. She mocks his taste for Dvorak and Tchaikovsky (not to mention that he actually hides his soundtrack recording of Un Homme et Une Femme since it would not even make her starting gate) but does show respect for his color-coded Penguins and Pelicans (unread charity shop purchases, alas), although her taste runs more to poets like Ted Hughes.

And then there’s the sex, or rather lack of it — as Barnes perceptively observes, for most of of us who came to maturity in the Sixties, the “permissive Sixties” didn’t really arrive until, too late, the Seventies. This is a long quote, but it is worth the effort because it captures the sexual tension of the time (now recognized, of course, as being very permissive) and illustrates the way that Barnes anchors Tony’s memories in a perceptively-observed broader world:

Veronica wasn’t very different from other girls of the time. They were physically comfortable with you, took your arm in public, kissed you until the color rose, and might consciously press their breasts against you as long as there were about five layers of clothing between flesh and flesh. They would be perfectly aware of what was going on in your trousers without even mentioning it. And that was all, for quite a while. Some girls allowed more: you heard of those who went in for mutual masturbation, others who permitted ‘full sex’, as it was known. You couldn’t appreciate the gravity of that ‘full’ unless you’d had a lot of the half-empty kind. And then, as the relationship continued, there were certain implicit trade-offs, some based on whim, others on promise and commitment — up to what the poet called ‘a wrangle for a ring’.

Tony doesn’t get ‘full sex’ — ‘It doesn’t feel right’ is Veronica’s response when he tries. He does get a weekend visit to her parent’s home in Chislehurst, Kent; his only suitcase is so large that it prompts her father to observe ‘Looks like you’re planning to move in, young man’ when Tony is picked up at the train station.

The aging Tony’s memories of this watershed weekend are sparked by a totally unexpected event. He receives from the executor of Veronica’s mother’s estate a letter saying that he has been left a bequest of £500 and two documents, but only one is attached. While he and Veronica ended their relationship more than 40 years ago (yes, she and Adrian did get together which sparked the incident that has produced his remorse), the executor’s letter does open the Pandora’s box that was his youth.

Barnes does not waste a single word in this wonderful short novel — I’ve tried to include enough quotes to show that, but rest assured I have not spoiled the book if you choose to read it. I can think immediately of two other excellent short novels that attracted Booker Prize attention: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day and Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach (both also “memory” novels) and The Sense of an Ending deserves to be ranked with both.

I will add a caveat to my positive assessment: I cannot set aside my own age when it comes to appreciating the way that Barnes has captured the process of looking back into what produced this current stage of life and left the trails of “remorse” that he explores in the book — as Tony makes clear, he leaves out the ordinary and concentrates only on this exceptional stream of experience. For me, The Sense of an Ending was a very special book that demanded — and got — an immediate second reading. It was worth it and I will not be disappointed at all to see this slim volume on the Booker shortlist; indeed, I will be disappointed if it is not there.


83 Responses to “The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    This is the one I’ve been waiting for. Sounds marvellous. Barnes at the top of his game, thanks Kevin.


  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: It is that good. Plan on two reads — you can finish it easily in an evening and it is worth a re-visit a few days later.


  3. savidgereads Says:

    I was thinking that I hadn’t read any Barnes and feeling, as I often do, like a rather fraudulent lover of books. But I have read him… I read ‘Arthur and George’ and really rather liked it a lot. I might have to give this one a whirl after this review, I also like the sound of it because its, erm, short and so would be a great ‘in between’ read with substance.


  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    If you are trundling through prize submissions (I’ve been there and appreciate the challenge), I would certainly recommend this as a perfect “in between” (read, “better than anything I am reading”) book — less than three hours and immensely rewarding. Then, set it aside for a more serious revisit later.


  5. Lee Monks Says:

    Great review and I’d expect (without any qualification for saying so) this to not only hit the shortlist but triumph. You can see it being the one book all panellists rate highly. I also very much look forward to it as a) it sounds marvellous and b) other than Nothing To Be Frightened of, it’s a while since I either finished or particularly enjoyed a Barnes.


  6. Mary Gilbert Says:

    Nothing to be Frightened Of was an exceptional meditation on our fear of death without being overly grim. Your vivid review makes me want to read this novel as well. Barnes is clearly in a very valedictory mood at this moment and I hope this won’t prevent him from writing more novels which engage with the present. As someone of the same post war generation I agree we’re entering an age of reflection and summary but I’m hopeful there’s still time for more adventures too..


  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lee, Mary: My aversion to memoirs means that I have not read Nothing To Be Frightened Of — I’d have to think that there are similarities with this novel (valedictory is a good description, Mary). While I have read four or five Barnes previously, none were recent and while I recognize the titles I don’t remember the books. He’s one of those authors whom I pick up on the basis of name recognition and book cover design, enjoy the read but don’t really store it for contemplation. I will with this one — I suspect at least one judge will be arguing for it but both lengthy and demography may be an issue when it comes to winning the Prize.


  8. Lee Monks Says:

    Yes it would probably be the shortest ever Booker winner, wouldn’t it? And a great signal to hopefully reverberate – big doesn’t necessary equal good etc. It’s a fair point that I hadn’t given enough consideration to and I daresay that might be crucial.


  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    While I shouldn’t be attributing personality to the jury, I can’t help but speculate that they seem to have a taste for novels set in repressive states elsewhere (Romania, Moscow, a couple WWII, post-bio terror, just for a start) with a fair bit of action to them, at least from the publishers descriptions. The jury left a number of very good “contemplative” novels off the long list (Grant and Mars-Jones for example), while including this one, presumably because it was short. I suspect that means it may face a struggle in advancing.


  10. Lee Monks Says:

    Entirely convincing thoughts, sadly. Oh no! I’m pessimistic again! A hefty potboiler is going to win! I think a lot of people – me included – were far from expectant as to the quality of the winner this year for reasons outlined, so perhaps wait for next year. I’ll keep my eye on the reviews of the runners in the meantime.


  11. Lee Monks Says:

    In particular The Sisters Brothers…..


  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I meant to include California, 1855 in my list of failed repressive states a few comments ago, so thanks for presenting the opportunity of The Sisters Brothers. While I haven’t finished it yet, I would say Patrick deWitt has overtaken DBC Pierre in the “wierdest Booker book ever” category.


  13. Lee Monks Says:

    That sounds like it might be my cup of tea…there is hope beyond Julian Barnes yet…


  14. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’ve read a fair bit of Barnes, but not for ages (at least ten years). I skimmed Nothing to be Frightened Of, but it didn’t interest me enough to merit a proper reading (sorry Julian, great title though).

    “You couldn’t appreciate the gravity of that ‘full’ unless you’d had a lot of the half-empty kind.” – that’s a lovely line. I may pick this up. I used to really like Barnes, I can’t recall why I stopped reading him. Perhaps the same reason I stopped reading Tim Parks who for some reason I link him to in my mind (probably just my favourite writers of my late ’90s reading). He’s very good at the short but precise tale.

    You liked On Chesil Beach then Kevin? Is it one you’d also recommend?


  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: As I tried to indicate in the review, Barnes is one of those “in-between” writers for me — I keep buying and reading him, but I have to admit that for the most part he does not live on.

    I think this book will — my comparisons in recent fiction would be Hollinghurst (over-written, dull) and Linda Grant (a novel that is growing in my evaluation — I’m forgetting the bad parts and remembering her good ones). Both of those are also several times as long, so Barnes gets a “brevity” bonus.

    I cannot separate my own age from my impression of this book — Barnes has “caught” that moment when we start to look back on some of the things that we wish we might not have done. I’m not sure how someone in their thirties would react (I do hope John Self or Trevor gives it a try — they would come at it from a totally different perspective than I do). I won’t make any reference to your age, of course.

    I did like On Chesil Beach — read it twice in one day, in fact. I don’t think it is a great book, but it did explore an interesting theme. Having said that, and knowing a bit about how big your TBR pile is, I wouldn’t be urging you to go out and buy it tomorrow. The Barnes, on the other hand, is a very worthwhile purchase.


  16. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I picked that up Kevin. I preferred to be honest his crime fiction written under the name Dan Kavanagh.

    A brevity bonus. I’m fond of books that get those I admit. The Grant seems to be a grower for a few people but I already have one of hers unread on the shelves.

    Hm. The perspective does make it interesting. I’m not at that stage of my life but novels are in some respects a form of telepathy – they give us access to the thoughts and feelings of those unlike ourselves. When we recognise ourselves that has resonance, but when we don’t that also has real value.


  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    As for the “brevity bonus”, the prospect of reading an excellent 150-page book twice, as opposed to reading a 300-page book once, is something that I welcome. And then there is the “dullness value-subtracted tax”, when I am determined to finish a book that is not going well, so I find many other “tasks” to do to avoid reading. The result is a book that should be read in five or six hours ends up taking 15 or more hours of reading time, due to my procrastination.

    Even if you end up finding this of only minor interest, it does go very, very quickly (Barnes is a more than competent stylist) and the physical volume is compact in every dimension, which would make it excellent train reading.


  18. Trevor Says:

    I hear you about the “dullness value-subtracted tax,” Kevin. It took me several days to get through Snowdrops, despite my long commute. On the train I’d find myself checking my emails frequently, etc., just because I didn’t really want to be reading that book.


  19. Mrs.B. Says:

    I really need to discuss this with someone. (Spoilers) Why did the mother of V leave the bequest and the diary to Tony? What did she want to achieve? Did she want T & V to get back together? I cannot imagine that at her age she would want to lay blame on T for what happened to A. I mean it was 40 years ago so what would be the point?


  20. KevinfromCanada Says:


    Mrs. B: I’d say that Barnes has left those issues deliberately open for you to make your own interpretation — in that sense you share in Tony’s confusion since he doesn’t know either. In my view the 500 pounds was just to get his attention. As for the rest, I’d look to 1) Robson’s suicide when they were at school which no one could really explain (so we don’t really know why Adrian killed himself either) and 2) a re-reading of the diary page V did send Tony (pg. 85-86 in the book) which ends with “so if Tony” and you are left to make up the rest. From my perspective, one of the aspects of remorse that makes it worse than guilt is that the narrator is not even sure what impact his actions actually did have.


  21. Lee Monks Says:

    Quite. And to the great benefit of the book did he leave things thus. You know you’ve read a great book – I think it probably is genuinely great – when such potentially innocuous rejoinders as ‘Sorry, mum’ and ‘You just don’t get it, do you?’ are imbued with such poignancy.


  22. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lee: I think the uncertainty that Barnes leaves with the reader (and Tony for that matter) is one of the great achievements of the novel — and very, very difficult to achieve. As I said on DGR’s blog, if you get too preoccupied with parsing the book, it leads you down the wrong path. Better to contemplate the untidiness that is a reflection of life.


  23. RickP Says:

    Possible spoilers in my comments:
    I finished reading this yesterday and I realize my comments may seem over the top. This is my favourite Booker nominee in many years.

    I loved it on so many levels. Quite a bit of impact was packed into a very short novel. This is actually reminiscent of one of my all time favorites, Coetzee in that it’s a powerful short novel.

    Strangely, I knew I loved this novel after about 5 pages. Barnes has a wonderful command of the language. In the first section, I had a smile on my face the whole time. Usually I don’t talk too much to my wife about whatever I’m reading but I did in this case. I felt like I needed a highlighter to capture some of Barnes’ phrasing.

    Throughout the novel, he refers to the fallibility of memory. He does so obviously yet subtly. The theme fits perfectly in the storyline.

    This novel hooked me both emotionally and intellectually from beginning to end. That’s my definition of a great work. I had both affection and respect for it.

    At the end of the novel, there is a character with a developmental disability. This was just extra impact for me as I am the father of two boys with autism.

    This is Kevin’s blog and I don’t mean to write my own review but this was a very impactful novel for me.

    I believe the obvious quality should guarantee short listing. Although I’ll Try to be open minded, I have a difficult time believing this won’t be my pick for the prize.

    My personal picks for the last three years were Barry, Coetzee and Galgut so maybe my abilities of prognostication are not what they should be.


  24. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rick: Your thoughtful comment is most welcome — thank you.


  25. Mrs.B. Says:

    (some spoilers)
    Kevin, thanks for answering my comment, What you said, “From my perspective, one of the aspects of remorse that makes it worse than guilt is that the narrator is not even sure what impact his actions actually did have” leaves a lot of food for thought. I think this book deserves to be on the shortlist and perhaps deserves the big prize. I’ve only read 2 longlisters but it’s hard to believe any of the others will be more brilliant than this one.


  26. Sheila O'Brien Says:

    I just finished the first ( of at least two) readings of this lovely book. Like Rick P, I was captivated from the outset. Barnes weaves powerful ideas through this compelling mystery, and has such a spare and potent use of language. In a year that everyone agrees is a terrible Booker field, surely this is a bright beacon of hope?


  27. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Sheila: It is definitely my first choice for the Prize. And the second read was even better than the first.


  28. willowbarcelona Says:

    spoilers: am so conflicted. i can`t imagine the various permutations of the older Veronica Barnes may have considered & perhaps Veronica wrote herself, but her evasiveness/monosyllabic silence seems more an affectation than an authentic response to Tony`s return to her life via her mother`s bequest to him. tony got it right the first time with his letter. cruel but then as a young man barely out of his teens, he was aware he`d been used & disposed of. will take your suggestion to reread in a few days and perhaps will find Tony`s self-flagelation more a 60 yr old`s excursion into drama before father time imposes serious old age. a truly great read but wish technique not so unsubtle at end. 2nd reading will be with open mind though. promise!


  29. Colette Jones Says:

    From what I’ve seen so far I think this book is going to be the Booker Forum’s favourite to win (if it makes the shortlist, of course). That’s good except that this will be the fifth year we’ve tallied votes and in exactly zero of the past four years did the judges agree.

    Though I agree in general with Lee and Kevin that Barnes should have left some things unexplained, I share Mrs B’s bewilderment about the will. Barnes tied quite a few things up neatly and it was unclear whether I’d missed something or not, when this detail did not make sense. I’m happy to accept that it was deliberate, but it was also somewhat inconsistent with the rest of the book to not have given more clues as to why she might leave him the diary.

    I don’t think the judges will choose this one. Their tastes based on some of the other books on the list suggest that they prefer stories that don’t leave a lot to the imagination. However, I disagree with Sheila who says everyone agrees it is a terrible Booker field. I have read six and three of those I would deem “Booker-worthy”. That’s par for the course in any year, and two of those that I do not like much (Alison Pick and Carol Birch) are being raved about by others. I will cast judgement over the shortlist rather than the longlist. If Barnes and Barry are not on it, I’ll be joining in on how badly they’ve done this year.


  30. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette: I think if you are engaged in the book in the form of being enrolled from the point of view of Tony’s desire to discover what happened, the uncertainty around the bequest, diary and Veronica’s behavior works just fine. If your interest in the book is from the point of view of “what’s going on here?”, I can understand the frustration you and Mrs. B feel.

    While my review of the Barry won’t be up for a week, I think On Canaan’s Side is an interesting comparison because it has the same issue. If you are into it from Lilly’s point of view, some of the plot “stretching” in the latter part of the book is quite fiine — if you are reading it from a more traditional plot point of view, it just asks too much indulgence from the reader. Barnes worked for me, Barry didn’t (although the novel is still very good) — I won’t be surprised at all to hear from people who experienced exactly the reverse. Which is a testimony to the worth of both books.

    I’m inclined to agree that Booker juries should not be judged until the short list (and I certainly prefer that to judging them on the winner). If there is general agreement on six to eight titles when the longlist comes together, I do think there is a tendency to throw some strange ones into the final mix (that was the case last year as well). Having said that, and with 12 of 13 now read (I won’t be reading the Rogers), I am disappointed with the quality of bottom half of this year’s list. And suspect you are right in feeling that The Sense of an Ending doesn’t have enough concrete “story” for this year’s jury — the Barry, on the other hand, well might.


  31. Colette Jones Says:

    My frustration was only slight and I believe this is the best book I’ve read this year so far, certainly the best on the Booker list so far, and I doubt any others I might get around to will overtake. I look forward to seeing your ranking in the new longlist thread on the Booker forum. People who have read as many as you help make it a bit more of a fair assessment.

    What has put you off Rogers? I have it from the library and might give it a try, but I don’t hold high hopes for it.


  32. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette: Dystopian novels just aren’t for me — and too many readers whom I respect have found this novel to be wanting on other counts as well. I have found a guest review from someone who likes the book.


    • Colette Jones Says:

      I’ve read it now. I have no problem with the dystopian element – that has been done very well elsewhere. Here though, the scenarios are not thought through well enough, and too much presented is black and white. It is basically a teen read, and along with Pigeon English, which I also deem a teen read, I now take back my earlier comments and think this is certainly a year to criticize the judges based on the longlist. Even if it’s only one judge pushing these through, it’s not good enough.

      Though our tastes do not always correspond, you told me that I wouldn’t like Not Untrue and Not Unkind on an earlier year’s longlist and you were correct. I can say with some certainty that you would not like The Testament of Jessie Lamb.


      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I didn’t mean to imply there was anything wrong with people who like dystopian novels — those books just aren’t for me (heck, I haven’t even read Nevil Shute’s On The Beach). And your comment about the teenage aspect seems to represent a broader criticism which I have also seen other readers express.

        The longlist (well two-thirds of it) is disappointing, particularly in a year when so many fine novels were published. We will see on Sept. 6 if that’s just the longlist or a a broader problem with this year’s jury. I do think a good shortlist is possible — I’m not sure this jury will select it.


  33. Narelle Pilgrim Says:

    Having just finished this book, I can appreciate the frustration of those readers wanting to know what was going on. I felt the same at first. But, since it’s written from Tony’s point of view, I think we are only meant to know what he knows. It’s not iintended to be a story with an omniscient narrator, but rather an account of his memories and experiences. I would say though that the relationship between the mother and daughter had a lot to do with what happened. When Tony met the mother she cryptically commented “Don’t let Veronica get away with too much”, but did not elaborate. I think that the mother’s bequest to Tony was her attempt to ensure that the whole story would come out; and that she’d chosen him as the recipient, not just because of his past connection to her daughter, but because she’d read A’s diary, in which he obviously figured.


  34. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Narelle: Welcome and thanks for the comment. I agree with you on why Barnes leaves it uncertain — my thinking about what happened with Veronica’s mother is also similar to yours.


  35. Sazerac Says:

    I’ve now read four in full and three in part of the longlist, and I have to say that for me, the Barnes is so far in a league of its own. Apart from anything else, it was the only one I read that resonated after I’d finished reading – and not just in a ‘why did she leave him five hundred quid’ sort of way. I don’t actually think that matters. Perhaps there was some explanation to be found in events recorded in the diary, but the diary doesn’t matter either. Isn’t that part of the whole point being made?: what we don’t know we invent; what we think we know might be more interpretation than fact. Those who want everything tied up neatly and all questions answered are falling into precisely that mode of ‘filling in the gaps at all costs’ thinking. Likewise I would mistrust anything that appears ‘black and white’ in the book. After all, it’s not called ‘An Ending’ but ‘The Sense of an Ending’ – even the title itself begs interpretation. It’s a superb book, but those who express doubt about it winning may well be right, given the untrustworthy quality of some of the others chosen.


  36. Narelle Pilgrim Says:

    Kevin, sorry, I should perhaps have introduced myself before jumping into the discussion. I didn’t just stumble across your site but was led to it by Lisa Hill, who, as you no doubt know, also keeps a reading blog and runs an online discussion group that I participate in. It’s nice to have access to another source of intelligent comments from booklovers across the globe. How did we ever manage in the pre-internet days? 🙂


  37. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Narelle: Thanks for that information. Lisa is my number one source on Australian books — I find there are a lot of comparisons between Canadian and Australian fiction. Actually, in the early months of this blog I did a post on some of the similarities — link is here — and I should remember to return to the subject sometime soon. Although, I must admit my reading of Australian work has been slim for the last few months — more lack of time than lack of worthy choices, I hasten to say.

    And the internet with its blogs and forums certainly does make it much easier to gather thoughts and recommendations about books from around the world, even if those of us in the Old Dominions sometimes have to wait for a while before we can actually buy the books.


  38. Narelle Pilgrim Says:

    Kevin, I found your comparisons of Canadian and Australian literature really interesting. I must admit that I was surprised to find Fall on Your Knees likened to A Fraction of the Whole – which, to my shame, I still haven’t gotten around to reading. I didn’t like MacDonald’s book, which smacked of sensationalism to me; but it’s many years since I read it, so maybe I would not see it that way now. I did enjoy her later one, The Way the Crow Flies – to my surprise, as I almost didn’t read it. I will have to move Steve Toltz’s book up the tbr pile; you have piqued my curiosity now.
    I agree with you about Marina Endicott’s Good to a Fault; I may be female, but it was still too syrupy sweet for my taste.


  39. Mrs.B. Says:

    It’s amazing how much discussion this book provokes. It took a while but I finally wrote a review for it at my blog. I added a link to your review.


  40. RickP Says:

    Mrs. B,

    I read your review and you bring up a number of points that many others are troubled by.

    Since it’s not really a plot driven book and since the fallibility of memory is a key theme, I’m not sure the questions need to be answered. I’m not sure they’re particularly relevant.

    You have very valid points but for me, not knowing was thought provoking rather than irritating.


    • Mrs.B. Says:

      Interesting points Rick. The book was definitely thought provoking but I was frustrated after analyzing it for a few days. I realized that Tony had ‘got it’ as he mentioned in the last few pages. He ‘got’ why Mrs.Ford had left him the diary, why Veronica had meant blood money, etc. But I for one still don’t get it. So the fact that he knows but chose not to share it with us is indeed frustrating. I still think it’s a good book and would love to do it with my book club.


  41. Narelle Pilgrim Says:

    Rick, I agree that not knowing can work very well in a book; but I think it works better if the reader can imagine at least one or two scenarios that might explain what happened. To be left wondering whether A, B or C might be the case, or indeed whether it matters at all is one thing; to be left completely flummoxed, with no possible scenario that would fit is a different kind of ‘not knowing’. The quotes Mrs B give in her blog – ‘blood money’; ‘especially now’ – and I would add the carer’s comment: ‘your presence upsets him’ – are guaranteed to make the reader feel he must have missed something somewhere. In most books, that would be the case, but it seems not in this one. I don’t think it’s the wondering we are left with that upsets people, but rather the lack of any kind of solid ground to hang onto. I think it’s a great book, but I can understand the frustration. Has anyone heard/read any comments Barnes himself has made about his book?


  42. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mrs. B, Narelle: I don’t have any problem constructing a conceivable scenario (albeit one that still has questions).

    1. We know that Veronica the student has “issues” both from her awkward sex with Tony and her mother’s remark to him — even if we don’t know exactly what they are.
    2. Adrian also has issues that we don’t really know about — indeed none of the other members of the foursome can really explain their attraction to him.
    3. I also felt there was a bit of the flirt to Veronica’s mother’s behavior on Tony’s visit.
    4. So when A and V get together and T writes his terrible letter, I find it quite plausible that A would share it with the Mother.
    5. An affair results (one night? longer? — again, neither Tony nor the reader knows) which leads to the child.
    6. Also, apparently, A’s suicide. I think the early section at school about the suicide then and how no-one really knew why it happened is relevant in illustrating the uncertainty that is present around this suicide as well.
    7. V’s mother has A’s diary (one presumes he gave it to her) which presumably supplies more concrete detail on this.
    8. In her will she leaves Tony 500 pounds (enough to get his attention as Barnes explains in the book) and the diary which I assume links T’s letter to the “tragedy”. I like to think that she and A decided this jointly, but that is an hypothesis on my part.
    9. V won’t share the diary, beyond one page (with its enigmatic final phrase), presumably because it also contains some information which reflects badly on her — yet she still wants T to feel some consequences for his actions.
    10. As for the carer’s comment, I think everyone involved was damaged (the child not the least) and, in their own way, hold Tony responsible (again he and we don’t know to what degree he actually is) — so I don’t have any problem with his response when he realizes who Tony is.

    Okay, that is only a sketch of possibilities but I just put it together without access to the book since I’ve loaned it to a friend so it is pretty concrete in my mind. And other explanations are certainly possible. As I commented early, it seems to me the whole book is meant to illustrate Tony’s uncertainty (hence his feeling of “remorse” as opposed to “guilt”) so I don’t have any problem as a reader in joining in that with him. He doesn’t know what he created — that’s why he only has a “sense of an ending”.


  43. Mrs.B. Says:

    Kevin – your scenarios are certainly plausible. A scenario my husband had (I got him to read the book) is that Veronica herself has just had recent access to the diary assuming it’s been in Mrs.Ford’s possession the whole time. This is why V is angry and seems so bitter. For all we know she’s actually leading a normal and happy life but all these emotions were reawakened in her hence her anger at Tony. As you say, she may also have discovered some comments about herself in the diary that make her angry as well.

    My frustration with the book is as Natalie says because there’s too many possible scenarios. I usually like open ended books but this one just leaves too many possibilities. I guess I also feel angry that Tony is blamed for something that probably would have happened anyway given Mrs.Ford’s flirty behavior. What was that sign with her hand that she gave Tony when he left that weekend and which he recalled in the last page?


  44. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mrs. B: I’m inclined to agree with your husband’s reasoning, because it helps explain V’s present time response.

    I come back again, however, to the uncertainty of remorse being the central idea of the book. If you will permit a flippant remark, it is the polar opposite of Dick Cheney’s new authobiography where everything he did or wanted to do was exactly the right thing that was required. No remorse (or guilt or even shame) from the former Vice-President.


  45. Narelle Pilgrim Says:

    The more we talk about this book, the more I feel I will have to read it again – surely the sign of a great book, as you have said, Kevin. I’m still mulling over the reaction of the boy to Tony’s presence. I don’t think it could have been a reflection of Tony’s part in creating some sort of trauma in his life, as the carer makes the comment about his unsettling presence before he knows who he is. The boy would no doubt associate him with the woman he knows as Mary since he had seen him sitting in her car; so it seems that it’s his connection to her that is the problem. Yet both the boy and the rest of the group had been delighted to see her. So is it her absence that he now finds upsetting? The questions are endless, but, as you have said, it’s all conjecture in a book that is not designed to give any answers. Barnes does drop some clues of what to expect along the way. For example, right at the beginning: “If I can’t be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impessions those facts left. That’s the best I can manage.”


  46. Sazerac Says:

    Doesn’t this whole discussion exemplify exactly what the book was about? The reader struggling to fill in the gaps has very cleverly been put in exactly the relationship of Tony to Veronica (well, to all the other characters, but it’s spelled out very bluntly in her case) – why this? why that? perhaps the other. I very much feel that an attempt to nail down all the details runs the risk of missing the bigger picture that the book is setting up for discussion. I think the aim is to direct the reader outside of itself; not draw him or her deeper in to solve the “puzzles” contained with in it.


  47. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Narelle, Sazerac: One of the reasons that I read it twice before reviewing it was that I realized I had been overly distracted by elements of the “puzzle” on my first read. I approached the second one much more from Tony’s viewpoint and found it very rewarding — Barnes makes some very keen observations about the times that had slipped by me on my first read.


  48. Liz from Literary Masters Says:

    The good news is: thanks to you, Kevin, I have discovered the Book Depository at Abes Books. Yippee! Even better news: I have finished this book and enjoyed it immensely. The not so good news: I feel…a little cheated. I agree with Sazerac in the comments above, and I think this book does illustrate that “reality” is largely something we construct from our own perceptions, desires, flawed memories and all that; however, I also feel that if there is a gun in a scene, it ought to go off at some point. Not really, but I think you get my point? Perhaps I like my novels a little tidier, and I admit that I absolutely love books that drop clues that I must pick up to understand the book fully–the clues in On Chesil Beach were very subtle and many in my book groups missed a crucial part of the story altogether. I think perhaps I’ll have to re-read this book and hope to discover more. So, I suppose I disagree with a lot of the comments above about solving the puzzle not being the point. Not sure at the moment…


  49. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Liz: I guess I would argue you need to consider why Barnes chose to tell his story in the first person. And I would argue that he did that precisely to show that sometime individuals cannot fully understand what happened, even if they were intimately involved. If you go back to my original review, I found that the key issue was exploring the difference between shame, guilt and remorse (and included a quote which I think illustrates Barnes was very deliberate about that). Next time through, approach it from the point of view of joining Tony discovering what he doesn’t know — and indeed will never know.

    And just think how much it is going to cost you now that you know the AbeBooks through Book Depository track. 🙂


  50. Liz from Literary Masters Says:

    Yes, I realize that we readers are actually in the position of Tony, and that, to me, is a large point of the book. Still, I can’t help but feel that I am missing something that I will pick up on a second read. (Probably wishful thinking as all the comments above from many serious readers who have read it twice show…)

    For about the first two-thirds of the book I kept thinking that Tony was an incredibly unreliable narrator. Yes, just like our memories…but he felt almost sinister to me. Hmm…

    Perhaps part of my problem is that I don’t know Barnes’ writing well enough. I read one of his books years ago but have little memory of it. Anyway, at least I enjoyed this book enough to happily re-read it. And yes, thanks for the intro to the Book Depository!


  51. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I certainly found a second reading added both depth and perspective. Mrs. KfC said on hers what she noticed most was the perceptiveness of the little details and asides that she hadn’t seen on her first read. While the primary story may be incomplete or inconclusive (for whatever reason), there is a wealth of unsubstantial detail underneath.

    As for Tony’s “real” character…well that would be a very long review in itself, just to introduce the subject.


  52. Bill Says:

    Thank you, all, for your well-considered analysis and honest reactions. I was perplexed by the reviews I was reading about “all the pieces come together in a final twist ending”. Barnes’ work is not like a mystery in that sense. All the pieces do not fall into place here- as in life.

    Impressive book.


  53. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Bill: Thanks for your kind words — I think the book has provoked a very worthwhile discussion here.


  54. Deborah Serravalle Says:

    I’m late to the game, having read this review via your Man Book Post.

    Wonderful review, however. This book has been on my list to read and now I’m chomping at the bit. I love that you included quotes. In them, I hear Adrian’s voice and it’s wonderful. An exquisite voice is, for me, a factor that separates the great from the good.


  55. Trevor Says:

    I’m just half way through this one, so things could change (they won’t), but I’m thrilled this won. The sentences — he is by far the best writer on the shortlist, twisting a thought around and then snipping it or blowing it up in a turn of phrase. And I’m finding the story itself fantastic.


  56. Michael Says:

    I found it almost impossible to read (to the end) because I kept going to the start to read some of the excellent passages. In the end (no puns intended), it was the longest 150 pages I have ever read and in all honesty, even after the self-enforced third reading, I am still confused with the mystery at the heart of the puzzle. I am taking a break from it and will probably pick it up again soon, when I am in the right frame of mind to immerse myself in it.


  57. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Michael: Well, in my opinion, Tony is as confused as you are about the mystery. Thanks for commenting.


  58. Kerry Wood Says:

    Our book group certainly had a big debate about the ending. I think the book is deceptively simple at first reading but then has you thinking for a long time. Not sure it should have won the Booker though.


  59. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: However good or bad it might be, I’d say it was much, much better than its competition on both the long and short lists. Now, if you included some of the books that this year’s jury did even include on its longlist (because they didn’t just “zip right along”), Barnes might well have faced a genuine contest.


  60. liz white (@lizwhite62) Says:

    looking forward to being thoroughly (although briefly) engaged by this during some holiday downtime.


  61. Phil Whitfield Says:

    With regard to the paternity of the younger disabled modern day Adrian here are alternative explanations – A) That Tony had infact slept with Mrs Ford but had neglected to tell us about it. Thus HIM being the father, though wanting to see only a likeness of Adrian as this is in line with his tramline thinking. Or the far more sinister (and paranoid – a theme that runs through the book in Tony’s internal dialogue) B)
    That Tony had been set up by the Ford family. This fits with his deep sense of unease around the family and in the house and Tony questions whether Mr F could have fathered V. Are all her children not really the progeny of a possibly impotent Mr Ford? Knowing this, the family conspire in their setting up of the pent up frustrated masturbatory student Tony. Mr F instructs him to urinate in the sink. Tony admits later in the book that on that weekend he masturbates and washes his sperm down the plughole (its referred to in the opening page of the book). “he’ll do, wont he?” refers to the family’s green light in that Tony appears to have the right blend of social and genetic traits to be an unwitting sperm donor to the now soon to be menopausal Mrs F. The only logical conclusion is that V’s sexual baiting of him (“Cocktease”) leads her to be nearly 100% certain that after her uncostomary flirtiness towards himbefore he retires to bed, that he will masturbate into the sink. Its notable that on the first telling he admits only to pissing there, but on his further recollection it is to washing down the sperm. This sperm is collected by Mrs F and presumably “turkey baisted” into her awaiting tubes. Fast forward 40 years and we have a daughter who has held the secret and has cared for her half brother fathered by her set up pain of an ex boyfriend for whom she feels nothing but hatred and contempt because how could the Ford’s have possibly have known in thre era before screening and pre natal scans, that Tony had fathered a mentally disabled child. Adrian finds out about the trick that had been played on his erstwhile best friend and given the nature of Tony’s second letter, finds it all too much in his logical moral way, and tops himself. The baby is named after Adrian either before or after the suicide, it matters not.

    Disturbing, far fetched, but possible.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Sorry, Phil, I think your interpretation is not far-fetched or possible, but simply wrong. And also a bad misreading of the book — it is not a “who-dun-it”, but rather a study in the uncertainty (and inaccuracy) of memory.


  62. Phil Whitfield Says:

    Im not offended by your forthright opinion. I hold to my view at this moment in time. I will re-read the book. I would agree that the book is clearly a study in uncertainty and inaccuracy of memory, and thats why we are guessing as to what has actually occurred. I don’t see why the book has to be one dimensional. To me the author triumphs in his aim as you describe it, a study in the uncertainty (and inaccuracy) of memory, but the spin-off consequences of such a successful aim are that there are uncertainties which many readers will seek creatively to make certain (another triumph of the author). My theory is not a “bad misreading” of the book, nor is it “wrong”. Its is an attempt to fill in the pieces of a deliberately missing jigsaw, which are open to interpretation.


  63. Phil Whitfield Says:

    Thats all good – and thanks for setting up this facility to discuss literature – now that is worthy !


  64. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Phil: Thanks. I would like to think that we have some good discussions here and that people appreciate that forthright responses are just that and nothing more.


  65. Mrs.B. Says:

    I see you’ve gotten lots of comments on this post too. My review is still getting readers today. I’ve come to the conclusion that Tony did sleep with Sarah on that fateful weekend. The hand sign she gave was a reference to their having slept together. Somehow because of the fragility of memory, Tony had completely forgotten about that. It was only in the end that ‘he got it.’ Veronica though the diary also just found out about it, hence her anger. I doubt the child was his though because it doesn’t fit the time frame.


  66. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mrs. B: Sorry, I don’t share your the first half of your interpretation at all. I know others have advanced the same argument — it means ignoring everything that is in the book as far as I am concerned. Whereas A’s involvement would be quite consistent.

    And yes, my post gets lots of hits (it should move into the all-time first slot sometime in the next two weeks) as well — and I will admit mainly because people interpret the book in a way that I simply do not share. Still, a great novel, however you read it.


  67. Marilyn Potts Says:

    I really enjoyed reading this book Kevin. My take on it is that “A” is the father. It just seems more consistent to me. I love the whole discussion on memory. I think your age might affect how you piece this story together.
    I want to know what Liz discovered from you about the book depository at Abe books?


  68. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Marilyn: I tend to think that those of us who are older (and perhaps starting to reflect on our own youth and discovering how incomplete some memories that should be obvious are) are more inclined to understand Tony’s confusion — and not blame Barnes for it — than perhaps some younger readers might be. When I read the novel, there was no doubt in my mind that A was the father — and I still feel that way.

    As for the Book Depository and Abe Books, the issue was that since opening U.S. distribution centres the BD has “delisted” some UK titles when their system recognizes a North American internet address (books that have been released in the UK that are scheduled for later release in NA). If you go to Abe Books and search for them there, the BD shows up and there is no problem ordering them.


  69. hazel161 Says:

    Spoiler: I call attention to Mrs. Ford’s behavior at breakfast, and especially with the eggs. She is slapdash, breaks a yolk, “eases another egg onto my plate, despite my not asking for it or wanting it.” She tosses hot frying pan into the sink and ‘enjoyed causing this small havoc.” In view of later events, this encourages me to assume that once her daughter left Tony heated and frustrated, the mother presented her “plughole” with its access to her often defective eggs, for Tony’s urgent use. And that she later did the same with Adrian.

    I’m afraid that in general I thought this plotline could well have been on the list of prohibited plots in Barnes’s incandescent “Flaubert’s Parrot.”


  70. Liz from Literary Masters Says:

    Hi Kevin,

    This string of comments is so interesting–like a book group discussion! I did end up reading this little gem of a novel with some of my groups, and the conversations were rather lively! Here’s my post on it:

    We discuss The Art of Fielding next!


  71. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Liz: I’d say the comments here are ample illustration that books clubs would find this novel of interest. And I hope that the Harbach works out just as well.


  72. Karyn Says:

    Thanks so much for your superb review of this wonderful short novel. I am in the midst of it (finally reading it) and am transfixed! I also loved “On Chesil Beach”, which you rightly mention in this context.

    Before I start a new book, I always read your blog. My deep appreciation from abroad for your superb reviews!


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Hi Karyn: Thanks for the comment. Just last week another friend who read this book on the basis of my prompting a few years back was saying how fondly she remembers it.


      • Karyn Says:

        I love reading your blog, select what to read from it and want you to know how special this is, as currently posted in a country where there is no book store – as you know, Papua New Guinea. Imagine, a news stand with very limited newspapers & Magazine just opened for the first time.


        • MHG Says:

          I would get a Kindle and tell it that you live in UK or the US. Then you can download books inexpensively whenever you want. Alternatively, could the University of PNG Bookshop help? I do know, though, how disspiriting it can be to live somewhere there are no real bookshops. I spent a year in Stornoway where the “bookshop” sold only souvenir books. I counted the novels once and found a greand total of 11 in stock – none of which appealed.


      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        You are right — I can’t imagine it and don’t know how you cope.

        I guess I should be concentrating on finding longish novels readily available in paperback editions in Australia that don’t take up too much room in luggage?


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