The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (2011 Man Booker Prize winner) leads the reader through the murky passageways of memory, while musing about the nature of time and history.
The story opens with fragments of memories that, according to the narrator, are arranged “in no particular order” along with the caveat—“what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.” With this first paragraph, the book’s tenor is established.
When we first meet the central group of characters, they are teenagers in school, debating the cause(s) of World War I. One of the boys asserts the following:
“…isn’t the whole business of ascribing responsibility a kind of cop-out? We want to blame an individual so that everyone else is exculpated. Or we blame a historical process as a way of exonerating individuals. Or it’s all anarchic chaos, with the same consequence. It seems to me that there is—was—a chain of individual responsibilities, all of which were necessary, but not so long a chain that everybody can simply blame everyone else. But of course, my desire to ascribe responsibility might be more of a reflection of my own cast of mind than a fair analysis of what happened. That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation. The fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.”
In the novel, we can not depend on a “reliable” narrator for histories both large and small. The sand continually shifts beneath our feet as Barnes keeps us guessing and engrossed in the effort to discern the “truth” of one man’s life—in the same way that Kazuo Ishiguro kept us guessing as we peeled back layer upon layer of misperceptions in The Remains of the Day.
One could argue that this is a very British “type” of novel, where an extremely reserved older man is jarred out of the complacency that has been his life, and ends up staring into the abyss as he ultimately finds his “character” wanting.
While the British typecasting may or may not be true, in the end, it doesn’t matter. The philosophical questions posed by the book, along with the dry humor, is extremely satisfying and well worth more than a single read. And at 163 pages, you can allow it to take over your life for a very short period of time.