Told through the eyes of Tony, a regretful 60-year-old divorcee, The Sense of an Ending is a short, deeply meditative story about a story – about how we constantly make stories of our own lives in order to make sense of the things that have happened and are happening to us.
The novel begins with the all too recognisable artless naivety of youth, as Tony and his trio of friends, including Adrian, the new, enigmatic addition to the gang, find their places within their clique and the wider world as they go off to university.
It’s at university that Tony meets his first proper girlfriend, the strange but captivating Veronica, changing his once reverential relationship with Adrian forever and setting in motion the series of events culminating with the writing of a drunken, angry letter that causes Tony a great deal of regret in his old age.
This an inward-looking book, satirising the falsely neat narrative events ‘of the people in you normally read about in novels’, with an inward looking man at the centre of the story. Tony reflects back on fractured, unreliable memories, obscured by time and emotion, dissecting snippets of actions, events and words, trying to figure out his place in the story and what might have been different if he hadn’t have been one of those people that just let life happen to him.
Having not read the other books on the 2011 Man Booker short-list, I can’t say whether The Sense of An Ending was a deserving winner, but I can see why it won the prize. There is a lot of humanity within this book, by which I don’t mean that the characters treat each other particularly humanely – they really don’t – but that it offers painfully realistic examples of how people really are. The fragility of Tony’s emotions and his frustration with his memory – just what did that tiny gesture by Veronica’s mum mean 40 years ago? Did it mean anything? – was something I readily saw in myself as I lived through his story, Feeling this sympathy for Tony helped I think, because on the whole he isn’t a particularly likeable character – quite possibly because he, and his selfishness, is all too real.
In life, as in this book, many issues would resolve themselves if people just sat down and talked things through. Instead, what usually happens is that things are left unspoken. We often expect people to just get it and get angry, resentful and frustrated when they don’t. One of the most poignant moments in the novel is Tony hearing some news that undermines the entire narrative he has concocted for all that has happened to him, and all he can think about is how thin-cut chips are better than pub-style thick-cut ones because they keep the salt better and are less ‘potatoey’. Where the mind takes us is often where we don’t want it to.
I went to a talk by Philip Pullman a while back, where he suggested that having a good, interesting story to tell at your death is what gives life meaning. That resonated with me, and The Sense of an Ending had me thinking about this idea again. Tony’s story is filled with regret, and he was all too aware that his story was his own; it bore little or no relation to the story of those whose lives were tangled with his, showing just how much of our lives are lived inside our heads.