Julian Barnes website
Are readers now expected to deconstruct novels as they read them? That's not what I want from a good book.
The sense of an ending is exactly what was missing when I finished this year's Man Booker winner by Julian Barnes. Although the opening didn't really pull me in, I did my part and read attentively, more by habit than because the book was suspenseful or exciting.
For me, the characters never came fully alive, and that was disappointing. I formed no clear image of Tony, even though he described himself.
Indeed, it was telling that he described his own hairless head; to see someone else's baldness -- Jack's, for instance, through Tony's eyes, would have been far more revealing. Likewise, ex-wife Margaret seemed bland, and all through the book Veronica lacked credible motivation.
To cope with an unreliable narrator like Tony, the reader needs some plot development, and this novel has little. Dutifully, I followed Tony as he followed Veronica, his long-ago girlfriend, trying to extract from her his dead friend's diary, which had inexplicably been left to him by Veronica's mother, along with a small financial legacy.
As we wandered around North London, a few more sensory details would have been welcome; instead, we got more of Tony's cerebral self-doubt. The grotesque but mysterious cast of characters that Veronica showcased never really captured my interest.
Upon finishing, I was surprised that this book won such a respectable prize, and I looked at a number of reviews to see what others had made of it, sampling views from readers in The U.K., Australia, the U.S. and Canada.
Apparently, I was odd woman out. Most reviewers praised the book, though some wrote about having to look back for clues. But why should a novelist expect a reader to do this? It interrupts the forward momentum of the story, and indicates that the writer has failed to reveal what the reader needs to know, the next tantalizing tidbit in the slow accumulation of information that gives the reader a stake in the eventual payoff.
In the end, I looked back for clues too, but I found limited satisfaction. Much remained unexplained. While that may be true in life, it's uninteresting in a novel. On the whole, I felt there was little room for this reader in The Sense of an Ending (Random House Canada, 2011).
There were some good observations. "The reward of merit is not life's business," says Tony, and that rings true; our purpose on earth is certainly far less obvious than that simple formulation.
My main issue with this novel was that failed to deliver the moral solace that I have learned to expect from good fiction. Without The Sense of an Ending, of closure, a novel does not satisfy. Yes, memory is flawed and mutable, and yes, people want to think the best of themselves.
But what about these specific characters and their struggle? I could never identify with them, even with Tony when he had to revise his memory of Adrian. It felt frustrating to be unable to get to know even the main characters, and as for plot, the incomplete payoff didn't feel worth the effort of reading.
Veronica tells Tony in the novel, "'You still don't get it. You never did, and you never will. So stop even trying.'" (144) Good advice about the book, Veronica.