There is something utterly depressing in British literature. From Dickens to Hardy or 1984 to Harry Potter, the constant drizzle and greasy fish has polluted their writers' optimism. Though the ingredients make for poignant fiction, the stream of cynicism and melancholy is an apparent motif. This is apparent in Julian Barnes’s 2011 Man Booker Prize winner The Sense of an Ending.
The ending better be good if that is your title; and it is one of the finer points of the first person narrative. It will sanction all the melodrama and whining of the main character, Tony Webster, who seems to suffer, more from malaise than any physical or psychological damage. Webster will frustrate you with inaction, anger you with indecision, and disturb you with his preoccupation of a relationship 40 years old. Yet along the way, there is something human and relatable about his self-torture that will linger for the reader.
If you have recently read “The Fall of the House of Usher”, you will see Barnes’ Tony Webster in Poe’s Roderick. This short story is an excellent companion piece as both make evident the themes of regret, betrayal, and the wishing of malice on one we most desire. The author’s deft command of sentence structure and advanced vocabulary will also remind you of Poe. Barnes is a master with words painting them with their nuances of meaning as he leads and controls the reader. Even without a discernible external conflict, setting or emotion worth telling, he lulls you into a world of fantasy. It is this command and style of writing that will have me reading A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters and Flaubert’s Parrot.
It is a memory book. Webster reveals things to himself in time as he seeks out why his life is far too secure and peaceful. He looks for anxiety when he is included in the will of an ex-girlfriend’s mother as he is bestowed with his friend’s diary: an admired and precocious friend who suddenly committed suicide. He tortures himself for his past behavior, as he feels responsible for the death because of a letter he sent in bitterness when his best friend and his ex-girlfriend started dating. While he buried the past, he is unable to let it go and it has casted a shadow over every decision in life. He is haunted and haunted men are worth reading about.
This book will take you a few hours to read but a couple of weeks to get through. It is more about how it evokes the reader’s past relationships when we were young, frivolous and confident in righteousness. We are Tony Webster with our secrets and grudges as we will one day look back and see those first relationships as crossroads we could have or should not have taken. They will rise as mountains in our consciousness when the end is in sight and we will only wish we gained the closure Webster demands, deserve, or falls victim to. You will have to decide after you read his fate.
It is a depressing, British novella fully recommended for its themes, style and ending. But it will not lead you anywhere but the darkness of your own thoughts. A place I find myself whenever I close a book from that island nation in the North Atlantic.