The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (Random House Canada 2011)
This is a novel of youthful friendship and relationships, budding pretensions, teenage angst and middle-aged memories, reverie and regret. The book is told by Tony Webster, a middle-of -the-road type character who can best describe himself as peaceable. The first half of the book centres on the schoolboy friendship with Adrian Finn, a more intelligent, Camus-reading fellow pupil at their sixth form in central London. After the two separate for university, Adrian going to Cambridge and Tony to Bristol, we follow Tony's relationship with Veronica a woman who remains an enigma to Tony and whose feelings for him seem to swing between care and contempt. His relationship with Veronica simpered out after a year and she then goes out with Adrian. The chapter ends with the news of Adrian's death by his own hands.
The second half of the novel is set after Tony has retired, his marriage with Margaret lasting much longer but ending in amicable divorce. He is suddenly forced to reassess his past when a letter from a solicitor turns up informing him that he has been bequeathed Adrian's diary by Veronica's mother but also the news that Veronica, whom Tony had edited out of his past in discussions with Margaret, is currently in possession of the diary and looks unlikely to pass it on.
At the heart of the novel is an almost Proustian analysis of memory and history and Tony is much more at home with the historical certainties of the Greeks and Romans than of the mess of uncertainty of the near past. The focus of his reminiscence is a disastrous trip he took with Veronica to spend a weekend in Kent at her home with her family and every nuance and uttering is re-evaluated with each new exchange with Veronica as he tries to prove to her for once and for all that he finally gets it.
This is a short volume coming in at 150 pages but every word packs its power. Only on looking back do you begin to realise the complexity of the story as you begin to wonder whether your memory of earlier events or his is the one which is correct. I haven't had a chance to reread the book but I'm sure it's one that would get even better on a second visit. It more than justifies its inclusion in the Booker long list and unless Alan Hollinghurst has pulled out a gem with 'the Stranger's Child' I believe this one could go all the way and bag the prize.