12 February 2013

A Nasty Piece of Work

The Sense of an Ending
by Julian Barnes

Ah, the unreliable narrator. Almost de rigeur in highbrow contemporary fiction these days, it seems. Barnes’s narrator in The Sense of an Ending actually warns us on Page One that he’s unreliable. It turns out he’s right—not because he means to lie to us but, more interestingly, because he’s emotionally stunted, hopelessly self-centred, and blind to the characters and needs of people around him. Due to these (rather common) handicaps he perceives falsely, acts inappropriately, and reports inaccurately. He can’t help himself. He is also a rather dull person, of no great utility to anyone, and a nasty piece of work in a petty, unprofitable sort of way. The book is about him coming to realise all this, much too late in life to do anything about it.
     If reading about such a mediocrity sounds like an attractive proposition to you, you will like this book. But what if it doesn’t?
     It happens that this reviewer is a middle-aged man facing retirement with many hopes unrealised and ambitions unfulfilled. He was thus easily able to comprehend and appreciate the numerous insights appropriate to such a condition (which is also that of the narrator, Tony) that fill this book. They ring true—laceratingly so at times. Reading them was not exactly enjoyable, but there was a kind of satisfaction in it.
     Apart from the dubious pleasure of reading unpleasant home-truths, the other main diversion on offer in this book is the challenge of figuring out the truth of the tale Tony tells us. Not the literal details of the plot, but the emotional truth about the characters and their relationships to one another. It’s not really that hard. If (forewarned by Tony) one reads with care from the beginning and takes nothing for granted, one is likely to reach the end of the book with a pretty clear picture of what is going on, and the final revelation, even if not guessed beforehand, is hardly a great surprise.
     The Sense of an Ending is beautifully written, very readable and all too true to life. However, it is a nasty book about a foolish, cowardly, not-very-nice man whom Life punishes in a cursory but very effective way simply by happening to other people. Others may like this kind of thing, but I have to say it isn’t really my cup of tea.

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