This book is unsettling. The themes that Mr Barnes explores are heavy and somewhat depressing: ageing, the loss of memory as a natural process of ageing, the adolescent expectation of what life would be like and how life eventually disappoints. I haven't finished it, but The Sense of an Ending reminded me of the themes that he dealt with in Nothing to be Frightened of.
In a narrower sense, in terms of the story, it's testament to Mr Barnes' brilliant writing and story-telling that, as the big secret is finally revealed in the last few pages, as the reader puts the pieces of the puzzle together alongside Tony Webster, the narrator, the sense of horror that Tony feels when he finally "gets it" is similarly felt by the reader. Mr Barnes drops clues throughout the novel, and we're hit repeatedly over the head by how the narrator is dense and self-absorbed; and when the pieces finally come together, the Eureka moment is chilling and horrifying.
I may be talking it up a bit, but honestly, this book doesn't play up the plot in the same manner that Ian McEwan, for example, did in An Enduring Love which I kind of hated. But it's precisely because Mr Barnes infused so much philosophy and ruminations on life and death and ageing and mortality and memory into his story that the plot almost becomes secondary to what the writer is intending to convey. This is honestly such a fantastic, brilliant work of literature; even the narrator's own perspective of life, and his reflection of his opinions held as a teenager, resonate with me. Reading a Julian Barnes novel is actually an intensely personal experience for me; for some reason, even though my experiences so far have absolutely nothing in common with his (I didn't go to Oxford, for one), I identify the most with the things that he writes about amongst all the books that I've read. This is perhaps why he's my favourite, favourite writer of all-time, bar none; and of course, I would sell my soul to the devil to be able to write half as well as he does, which I've said before a few years ago. His prose is elegant, sharp, pensive, profound, intelligent without being obscure. His natural (English?) wit comes through too, sometimes in the dialogue, sometimes in the narration itself. I would definitely admit that John Banville writes more poetic prose; but Banville's poetic prose is also slow and sometimes clunky. Julian Barnes is never clunky. He grabs your attention and never lets go of it. He expresses an opinion, but he's never didactic about it. And his characters are so well-realised and well-formed that they are always three-dimensional human beings, easily someone you know.
The Sense of an Ending has been longlisted for the 2011 Man Booker prize. He's been shortlisted 3 times prior but has never won. In 1989, his Flaubert's Parrot (another fucking amazing and amazingly and creatively constructed novel with a sad narrator at the heart of it) lost to Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day. In 1998, his England, England (first Barnes novel ever read - it was taught in JC. Whoever decided to include this in the curriculum, oh my god, thank you so much) lost to Ian McEwan's Amsterdam. In 2005, his Arthur & George (brilliant piece of historical fiction) lost to John Banville's The Sea.
As a hardcore Barnes fangirl, I sought out all of the aforementioned books and read them, just to see what was so great about these books that they beat out the works by my favourite writer. I do not object to Ishiguro winning in 1989 as I thought that The Remains of the Day is quite honestly a brilliant piece of restrained writing that spoke volumes in the characters' silence.
However, although I was enthralled by Banville's writing in The Sea, I didn't think it was worthy of the Booker over Arthur & George because Banville's beautiful, lyrical, poetic prose was also slow and plodding and at times overwrought. Even worse, reading McEwan's Amsterdam royally pissed the living shit out of me, especially since it beat out what was my favourite Barnes novel (if only for the simple reason that the character of Martha Cochrane resonated deeply within me) at the time. I just didn't get the point of Amsterdam, and in typical McEwan style, there was so much fucking build-up, but the pay-off was shitty. I mean, I get the criticisms levied against England, England; but how about the flaws inherent in Amsterdam?
All this is a long way of me saying that I really, really hope that justice is finally served and Julian Barnes finally wins the fucking Booker. It's ridiculous that a writer of his stature, reputation and sheer genius talent hasn't won it yet. Surely it has to be his year, with this book? It's about as short as Amsterdam so hopefully that's a good sign?
I know, I know - it's just a silly award. But I still want the deserving writer to win it.