Thursday, December 22, 2011

Review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

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.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Review: The Bone People by Keri Hulme

The Maori legends and culture are the centerpiece in Keri Hulme's The Bone People, Man Booker Prize winner 1985.

The story centers around Kerewin, a wealthy artist estranged from her family and living alone in a tower in Moerangi, Joe Gillayley, widower and foster father of Simon Peter Gillayley, a young boy found at the age of 3 washed up on a nearby beach and a devil of a young man who can't, or won't, speak. He's far too advanced for his age and a regular hellion.

The story begins when Kerewin finds Simon has broken into her home. They begin a tenuous relationship that eventually includes Joe. As the trio become closer, Kerewin discovers what Joe's family, all of whom live nearby, already knows: he beats Simon, leaving scars from the belt buckle he uses. Joe gets drunk, loses his temper when Simon throws something or does something he shouldn't (steal, break into other people's homes, etc.), and the beatings commence. The story isn't so much about the abuse, but about the relationship between the three: a confirmed virgin in her late 20s, early 30s, a man looking for love and acceptance, and Simon looking for a family and someone to accept and understand him, warts and all.

Keri Hulme creates a dream world that shares echoes with reality in The Bone People. She winds the central tale about the internal monologues of the three central characters, and some of the background characters, and adds poetry, songs, and a sense of otherworldliness into the story. The quick side tracks and segues into monologue, legends, and hints at back story are vertiginous at times and heighten the suspense of the central question of who Simon really is.

It took me a while to figure out that the Maori dialogue was referenced in the back of the book since there were no footnotes or links or mention of the translations and that was frustrating. I wanted to know what the people were saying and how it affected the story. It was like being part of a conversation where others are speaking a different language at times.

I did like the Maori legends and the dynamics of family relationships, or the lack of them in Kerewin's case, but not so much the hints at some problem between Kerewin and her own family and why she had no contact with them. There are sections when the story soars and the writing is clear as glass and others where style has overwhelmed the story. Too much was left unwritten and still unclear at the end of the book. Much of what was left out or hinted at should have been tied into the ending and wasn't.

The Bone People is a good book, but not a great one. It allows a peek into the Maori culture and offers some broad hints about the clash between Maori and Europeans that added texture to an already intricately textured book. The style is very different from most books I've read in the literary genre and that's not necessarily a bad thing, but took some getting used to in the beginning. All in all, Keri Hulme did a good job with the book but forgot the main reason for writing a story -- the story. I'm all for magical realism, and this book is definitely in that realm, but I'd have to give the overall effect a C+.