I remember seeing a kitten drown in our swimming pool. But according to my family, it never happened. All of us carry memories of our childhood around with us, but how accurate are they? And does it really matter? Julian Barnes, author of popular Arthur & George, takes on the complex nature of memory in his latest book, The Sense of an Ending.
Settling into retirement, Tony Webster looks back over his life. He’s had a successful career, a pleasant marriage and even a pleasant divorce. “I wanted life not to bother me too much and succeeded,” he says of his ordinary existence. Happily, he finds that none of his memories requires deeper examination.
Everything changes when the mother of an old college girlfriend dies, leaving Tony a secret diary. Even more perplexing, the diary is not written by the benefactor. It belonged to one of Tony’s childhood friends, who long ago committed suicide. What is the connection?
Tony hasn’t thought about or been in touch with any of these people for years. But a door has opened and he can’t find peace until he digs into the past. Unfortunately, his ex-girlfriend Veronica is in possession of the diary. She still detests Tony and won’t give him the book. “You don’t get it,” she tells him angrily. “You never did.” Tony is discomfited by having to reopen his past. Could he have remembered his own life completely wrong?
This is a perfect novella — it has the complexity of a novel, but the heightened drama and tension of a short story. Artfully, Barnes draws the reader into a seemingly ordinary life and then turns the story on its head. It’s open-ended, yet sharp and insightful.
The Sense of an Ending is shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Julian Barnes has been shortlisted for the prize for three previous books. He is also this year’s winner of the David Cohen Prize — an award given to British writers for excellence over their entire writing career. In other words, this is literature at its best.
Other books shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year are Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch, The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt, Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman and Snowdrops by A.D. Miller.
Heather Allen is a writer and reader who lives in Penticton.