Tony Webster begins his tale at the age of 60, a time when he reflects on the past and his friends, trying to find memories and meaning in what happened to explain the bequest from an old girlfriend's mother, who was once kind to him while the rest of her family taunted him and made him feel awkward and out of his depth.
Forty years ago, his best friend, Adrian, committed suicide, leaving a note that was the essence of the young man giving up his life, in Roman style, and asking that the coroner publish his note. It wasn't a cry for help or a plea for forgiveness, but a rational and studied message that gave his life -- and his death meaning. Shocking as it was for his friends, and especially for Tony, it made sense -- Adrian's kind of sense.
Now, Tony must revisit that past and those memories to see what was true and remains true, and what was illusion.
It is not too difficult to find books that will blend past remembrance with current struggles, but Julian Barnes does not give Tony Webster anything to struggle against at first glance. Tony doesn't need to bring things full circle, as Victoria suggests, nor does he become maudlin and regretful about his past or his life since Adrian's death. Tony takes life as it comes, so he says, until he needs to wear away at the stones that bar his path, like an insurance company and most especially Victoria, hitting each with letters and emails that slowly, carefully, and thoughtfully wear down their resistance and give Tony what he wants. He is the water that drip, drip, drips until a hole is achieved. That is the essence of The Sense of an Ending, and what makes it work.
The Sense of an Ending is barely a novella but is sufficiently long to tell the story and give up all the details without too much overbearing style or too many bloated words. It is simply a good story told with economy and a subtle richness that makes the story fly; I read it in a matter of hours.
There are echoes of what is coming by the suicide of a school fellow who finds out his girlfriend is pregnant and hangs himself, leaving a quite note: Sorry, Mum. Adrian's death is more thoughtful and yet no one finds out, not even the reader, why he decided to end his life. Was it in typical Adrian fashion because he was finished or because he felt that nothing more could be accomplished after a first at Cambridge and honors to fill his cabinet? The answer to that lies in the diary that Victoria refuses to hand over to Tony, the diary her mother left him in her will, along with a letter and $500.
Tony is as clueless as Victoria claims throughout their relationship and during their struggle over Adrian's diary and that is aptly shown at the ending of The Sense of an Ending, but, in Tony's defense, little was given him and he wasn't curious enough to look farther than what was right in front of him.
What is best about The Sense of an Ending is not just a story told well, but how memory deceives and changes over time and how it can become as clear as clean glass when one least expects it. Although Tony claims to be a peaceful guy who wants nothing more than peace in his life, he is shown as someone who lets life happen to him rather than making life happen. He accepts all without rancor or regret, except when he finds out that Victoria is now with Adrian, and he muddles through without too much effort or thought, even to remaining friends with his ex-wife, who left him for someone else and eventually divorced. When she wanted to get back together, Tony said no because he liked his simple life as it was -- simple and without clutter or responsibility. In a sense, Tony committed emotional suicide in his youth and ghosted through the rest of life.
The Sense of an Ending, no matter its length, is worthy of the Man Booker Prize it won this year and I highly recommend it.