September 26, 2011 by markstani
Reviewing a book by one of the foremost exponents of literary fiction of his generation is a little daunting. My qualifications for such a job don’t add to up to much: I flunked English A-level because I didn’t like the analysing bit, and my favourite all-time Booker Prize winner is Vernon God Little. So there you go: that’s my disclaimer of sorts.
‘The Sense Of An Ending’ (pub. Jonathan Cape) is the only overtly ‘literary novel’ on this year’s shortlist. There’s been a lot of gripes about that, but I think it’s fair. Fans of the literary genre could hardly have wished for a stronger representative.
‘The Sense Of An Ending’ concerns Tony, the narrator, who has seemingly resigned himself to a broadly unsatisfactory trudge through what remains of his middle age when he receives a lawyer’s letter which impels him to re-examine and re-evaluate his past.
Tony’s recollections sweep us back, initially, to the reckless frustration of his adolescence, where he and his somewhat pretentious clique delight in the struggle to make sense of the inherent futility of everyday life, until the arrival in their lives of the mysterious Adrian Finn alters their group dynamic for good.
Barnes is especially brilliant when describing the awkwardness of this period: a first girlfriend with a body “as tightly guarded as a fisheries exclusion zone”; others who “were physically comfortable with you, took your arm in public, kissed you until the colour rose, and might consciously press their breasts against you as long as there were about five layers of clothing between flesh and flesh.”
‘The Sense Of An Ending’ is a taut, thought-provoking book, often snort-out-loud funny in a manner which propels the reader to exercise his or her own memory in search of that something deeper which lies beyond the initial flicker of recognition.
It’s a slim volume, but with writing of this quality that is neither here nor there. In parts, Barnes’ plot zips along with an urgency which you may say is uncharacteristic of the genre: all told, it excels at in exploring the wider context of how all our memories are exploited and redefined by age.
‘History,’ opines Finn, ‘is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.’ I live in hope that one day I’ll truly believe I passed my English A-level with flying colours, and sustain myself with embellished tales of the girls I knew. Until then, I’ll rely on Barnes to explain things far better than I could ever dream.