I read Levels of Life, Barnes’ latest book, when it came out last year. I’d never read anything by Barnes before and it was beautiful: intelligent and heart-breaking and, well, full of life – even though the crux of the book addressed Barnes’ reaction to the death of his wife. The Sense of an Ending is the first proper novel I’ve read by him, as Levels of Life is an amalgam of a lot of things and IS hard to categorize. As for The Sense of an Ending, I was intrigued because a wide range of people told me that they loved it – from English students to people who didn’t read a lot of literary fiction. I love books that you can appreciate from a literary perspective and that don’t feel like homework. The last paragraph here will contain spoilers.
Recently retired Tony receives a letter from a lawyer bequeathing him money and documents from the recently dead mother of his teenage girlfriend. Trying to remember events that happened forty years ago would be a struggle for anybody: we don’t remember things exactly how they happened, most people are very subjective in what they choose to remember. Clearly there are some things that Tony has repressed – he narrates some things throughout the book, and then, later, his recollections change. To further complicate things, Veronica broke up with Tony to be with his friend, Adrian, who committed suicide over forty years ago too. We later find out that one of the documents bequeathed to Tony is Adrian’s diary. Yet why does Veronica’s mother have it? And why does Veronica’s mother remember Tony anyway, having only met him over the course of a weekend forty years beforehand?
This isn’t a book that gives any hard answers. There are a few possible interpretations, which is more truthful, and interesting to me, than telling people what “actually” happened. What is “actually” anyway? Can we ever be objective about ourselves? I liked Barnes’ examination of memory and our perception of it: the things we tell ourselves so we can think of ourselves in a certain way. Is Tony partly responsible for his friend’s suicide? He managed to get through his working life believing that he wasn’t, but he finds that the truth is a slippery thing.
Something that I like about Barnes is his refusal to belong to one genre, one type of literature. Reading reviews of this novel to see other interpretations of the ending, I came across a lot of people trying to define it – as a tragedy, a thriller, and others even questioned if it was really a novel! Barnes experiments with expectations, leaving the reader with something more honest. He is a very interesting writer and I can’t wait to read more of his work.