Should Your Book Club Read The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes?

Should your book club read The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes?  The answer to this question: yes, resoundingly so.  In fact, I think this book should only be read with others because I guarantee you will have more questions than answers when you finish it.

You probably know by now that Julian Barnes, nominated multiple times in the past for the Man Booker prize, finally clinched the award this year with his The Sense of an Ending.  I say “his” because there is another book by the same title, a collection of lectures by the literary critic Frank Kermode, published in 1967, and if you really want some light shed onto Julian Barnes’ novel, I advise you to pick up Kermode’s book.  Warning, though–it’s not light reading.

So, what can your book club discuss after reading Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an EndingThe following contains many spoilers, so don’t read anymore if you haven’t finished the book!

Julian Barnes has described his book as being about how time affects memory and how memory affects time, and undoubtedly, you will want to explore this.

Coupled with the above, you will want to delve into the character of the narrator, Tony.  Just how reliable, or unreliable, is Tony?  You should consider his relationships–how he describes them versus how they really are.  So, think about his relationship with his daughter, with his ex-wife, with Adrian, and with Veronica, for example.  Importantly, think about his relationship with you, the reader.  Is he telling you the truth?  Is he telling himself the truth?  Remember at all times–Tony is narrating this story.  And he tells (warns?) us at the very start of the book, “…what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”

Along with time and memory, you’ll want to explore what the book is saying about history.  There are different definitions of it–what is the significance of history and how it is defined?  Pay attention to documentation and corroboration.

While considering time, memory, and history, pay attention to the Severn Bore scene.  Also, note how watches are worn…and what is said about subjective vs. objective time…

You’ll want to talk about the theme of sex and death (Eros and Thanatos) in the book.  What is the book saying about suicide?  Why does Adrian commit suicide?

Now, I warned you above that this blog post contains spoilers galore, so stop reading now if you haven’t read the book!

If you do take a look at Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending, you’ll want to think about peripeteia.  And then you’ll want to talk about how this concept relates to Julian Barnes’ novel.  And then you’ll want to consider how it relates to your experience reading this book.

And then…I predict you will have a rousing discussion, with more questions than answers.  For instance…

What do we really know at the end of this story?  Did Adrian father a child with Veronica’s mother?  Does the child really look like Adrian, or is that what Tony would like to believe, or is that what he would like us to believe? 

Is Tony the father?  When a very astute Literary Masters member first proposed this, I thought, “no way…” but then we talked about it…and it started to seem like he could be…

What did happen that weekend at Veronica’s house?  Why did Veronica’s mother tell Tony not to let Veronica get away with too much?  What was she doing with the eggs?  And what did her hand gesture mean?  Did Tony and Sarah get together that weekend?

What did Veronica mean when she said “he’ll do” and why did she leave Tony with her mother while she went off with her father and brother?

What did Tony mean when he told Adrian that Veronica was “damaged a long way back”?

Why did Sarah bequeath 500 pounds to Tony?  Could Tony have given Sarah the money to terminate the pregnancy, and because she didn’t, she returned the money, albeit years later?  Is that why Veronica suggested that it could be “blood money“?

Veronica repeatedly tells Tony that he just doesn’t get it.  What does she mean, exactly?

Why did Sarah have Adrian’s diary?  Why did Sarah bequeath the diary to Tony?  Why do we, the readers, not get to see it?

What is the meaning of the mathematical equation in the diary fragment?

No doubt you will want to discuss whether the point of this book is that we can’t know all the answers.  You’ll want to talk about how the way we “know” reality at all is through our (by definition, unreliable) memory, and time (along with a host of other factors) distorts memory.   But still, don’t you want to know the answers to some of the above questions?

The New York Times ran an obituary for Frank Kermode, which you can read here.  In it, the English literary critic Lawrence S. Rainey is referred to because he had described a central theme of Frank Kermode’s writing as being  “the conflict between the human need to make sense of the world through storytelling and our propensity to seek meaning in details (linguistic, symbolic, anecdotal) that are indifferent, even hostile, to story.”  The obituary goes on to say that “Mr. Kermode analyzed the fictions we invent to bring meaning and order to a world that often seems chaotic and hurtling toward catastrophe,” and that Kermode also pointed out “narratives, just like life, can include details that defy interpretation.”

So, is that what I’ve been doing with regard to Julian Barnes’ novel?  Have I been focusing on the details of the story, trying to extract meaning from (or is it impose meaning upon?) them, when they actually defy interpretation?  If so, isn’t this book exactly like life in that regard?

Yet, on the other hand, if we persist in our search for answers, there’s always the chance that we’ll find them, right?

Well, I came away from this book (and I read it twice) with many more questions than answers.  And the answers I did have never seemed to be definitive.  There always seemed to be an alternative answer for each question.  If your book club reads this novel, and if your book club thinks it knows the answers, please share!

3 thoughts on “Should Your Book Club Read The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes?

  1. If you believe that Character = Plot you'll love Barnes' book. It is not the complications over time (what happens when and in what order) that count in this kind of novel as much as the characters' growth in understanding over time (e.g., do they ever adjust their stories about themselves? Realize the stories they tell themselves are incomplete, or wrong, damaging, etc.? Change? Lose their fear?).

    Brilliantly done. I wish there were more novels like this one. They can't be the only kinds of stories, naturally, because we do often want a big tasty heaping of plot with a rich setting and some punchy dialogue. But the mystery in Barnes' book had me racing to the end of it every bit as much as I do with all the great Scandinavian mysteries I'm also hooked on. He is saying something psychologically true about the nature of being human and how we organize our life stories in ways that we can live with at the time. But he doesn't give you any answers you can take to the bank–only things to ponder.

  2. Hi Belgie,

    Thanks for such a thoughtful and articulate comment. You've summed it up really well. I still can't help wanting to know “the answers,” even though I realize that's not the point…Sigh.

  3. The Sense of an Ending is a bit of a challenging and devastating tale of philosophical ideas about memory, aging, time and remorse. The imperfections of memory present a thought-provoking subject matter and delves into mistakes, disappointments and life's losses and mysteriously offers insight into the human condition. I found this little book an interesting read.

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