The Sense of an Ending, Life and Death in 163 pages

The first page begins with six cryptic, seemingly random statements. They are moments in time, innocuous observations of the world. When first read they seem meaningless, but as the story progresses these six moments begin to take on an important meaning. They develop and build slowly in a heartrending crescendo until they finally culminate at the conclusion, when they all finally make sense to the reader. Herein lies the beauty of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. He is able to seed images in his readers’ minds, images that wait for the perfect moment to come into their full form.

I’ve read a lot this year, but nothing has had as strong of an emotional impact as this short novel. It’s difficult to describe the feelings that it brings about. While there is an overwhelming sense of despair and terror brought about towards the gravity of our actions and our single chance at life, it isn’t the kind of despair that makes one want to bury their head under their pillow. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; after finishing, I found myself oddly invigorated, wanting to go out and have some kind of meaningful experience. A pervasive idea throughout the text is that most people fail to take charge of their life and turn it into something worth living, instead opting to let it fly by past them and take the path of least resistance. Barnes addresses this in a beautiful and realistic way, without allowing his book to become some sort of preachy self-help novella. The language is fairly simple but well-refined, and none of the events seem grandiose or exaggerated. I’m normally not a stickler for realism in the literature I read, but considering this novel’s grounded and practical driving theme I found it to work very well.

Despite its short length, The Sense of an Ending manages to pack in many complex and profound truths about the nature of life and aging. Among these are the reliability of memory in forming one’s ideas about the world, the place suicide has in society, and the transitive nature of relationships. I was amazed to see how well Barnes is able to fit in so many ideas without overcrowding the text, and also how he manages to bring all of these ideas together to tell the story of a single man’s life, identifying the most important and formative moments along the way.

I can’t recommend this novel enough. I hope to revisit it when I’m older in order to compare how it impacts me at a different stage of life.

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