THE SENSE OF A ENDING by Julian Barnes (Vintage Books, 2012)

This is a novel about memory and the need we all have to create personal narratives that show us in the best light.

Aside from eliminating bad memories, the brain can play tricks on us by blanking out or reconstructing embarrassing or painful things from the past we’d prefer to forget.

This is the fictional fate of Tony Webster, whose life we follow from the idealistic arrogance of his youth to the resigned acceptance of a relatively uneventful life upon entering what sociologists and Saga travel company would call the ‘third age’.

In these twilight years , as a lonely, retired and divorced citizen, Tony  comes to the realisation that he is not, after all, in control of his destiny and forced to concede: “we muddle along, we let things happen to us”.

To make his present more bearable he tries to make peace with his past. The major stumbling block is the first serious love of his life, Veronica. She belongs to that class of women that men see as mysterious because they are unable to understand them. Her motives for being so bitchy and unkind only become clear at the rather contrived conclusion to the novel.

More than the plot, it is the philosophical reflections on memory itself (“a thing of shreds and patches”) that make this novel worth reading.

It is telling that history is defined as “that point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation” while historical testimony “isn’t the lies of the victors, it’s more the memories of the survivors and the self-delusion of the defeated”.

Julian Barnes‘ protagonist is constantly thwarted in his attempts to piece together a version of the past he can live with. His frustration is all the more poignant since in this fiction, as in real life, there are no sequels.

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