A compelling memoir on death

2011-10-26 00:00

IN 2008, Julian Barnes published Nothing to be Afraid of , a memoir and a meditation on death. Later the same year his wife, literary agent Pat Kavanagh died. Now comes The Sense of an Ending , a novella “for Pat” and, as its title and black-edged pages suggest, another meditation, if not on death, at least its approach.

To the question “What is history?” a character in the book responds: “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” It is an answer around which The Sense of an Ending pivots.

The narrator, Tony Webster, is in late middle age, a vantage point for reflection on his life: “Some achievements and some disappointments” — a marriage, a daughter, a career in arts administration, an amicable divorce.

Consisting of two sections, the first deals with Webster’s schooldays and adolescence during the sixties, when he was one of a small group of intelligent, articulate teenage boys (echoes here of Barnes’s first novel Metroland). In the second section, some unexpected documentation turns up challenging the imperfections of Webster’s memory and forcing him to re-evaluate the version of his life he had constructed for himself.

While The Sense of an Ending is never less than a great read — unputdownable in fact — I’m not convinced the second half really gets to grips with the philosophical issues Barnes so skilfully raises in the first; a plot element promising some shock revelation is possibly a fatal flaw. A second reading is called for.

By way of a footnote, Pat Kavanagh matriculated from Durban Girls’ High School, and Barnes later borrowed her surname for the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh, under which he wrote a handful of private-eye thrillers featuring the bisexual detective Duffy.

• The Sense of an Ending is the winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize.

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