I decided at some point that I was only going to blog book reviews of books I loved and wanted to promote. I decided this in part because I don’t necessarily want to be that beast of a book critic. I realize book critics (and critics in general) are generally reviled. I haven’t, after all, written a novel, so what right do I have to criticize others’ novels?
That said, books for me are about much more than that. The discussions we have around them, the ideas they evoke for us are worth putting out there. And, in rereading my review of The Sense of an Ending, I realize that some of my thoughts about this book are worth putting out there and talking more about.
So here it is: My review of Julian Barnes’s book! If you want to talk more about issues of sexism and what we do with art that doesn’t speak to us ideologically, then talk with me about this review!
I keep falling for these white, male, late-middle aged, British authors who write lovely, subtle, internal novels about the effect of the passage of time and memory—Ian McEwan is the best of them in my opinion (though I utterly hate some of his books), but this list also includes the likes of John Banville and now Julian Barnes.
The Sense of an Ending won the Man Booker Prize in 2011, and I can see why: It’s serious without being pretentious, and it deals with important aspects of life though with subtlety and complexity. All that said, I’d wanted to love it—expected to love it—and I only really liked it. Perhaps it’s not the book at all—perhaps it’s me. Maybe I need something different at this moment; maybe I was just comparing too much to McEwan, or maybe I’m just not old enough yet to fall fully into the rumination that Barnes’s narrator, Tony, is engaged in. This, ultimately, is what this book is about: a man looking back on his life and trying to decide if it was what he’d hoped it would have been.
But I also have this sneaking suspicion that some of my complaints of this book come more out of my own subjective views on the world. Namely, I found Tony tiresome. He admits that he’s not one of history’s winners—he wasn’t brave enough to be. Barnes also doesn’t intend for us to embrace him fully; he is consciously an unreliable narrator—remember this book is about time and memory—and he’s relating a story from his childhood that, now, as an adult, he feels some remorse for. He’s also a product of his time, so perhaps I should forgive him his sexism…But much of the book is predicated on Tony’s complaint that his girlfriend, Veronica, just won’t put out. This is, in some ways, the central conflict of the book—not that it’s a book about a young man trying to get laid (though it kind of is), but that his attitudes towards Veronica end up having a much bigger impact—perhaps—on what happens in the rest of his life, or at least in this particular thread of his life. As an adult, Tony only has one real friend, his ex-wife, who seems to have a good head on her shoulders, and I kept hoping that in some conversation about Veronica that they’d had, she’d have told him straight up that he was being an entitled baby. But that doesn’t seem to be what happened; instead she continually refers to Veronica as “The Fruitcake.” Again, I realize this book is fiction, and perhaps we’re meant to find Tony and the lack of any real intelligence around sex tiresome, but…well, I found it a bit tiresome.
Finally, the surprise ending felt off to me. Tony’s sudden understanding of what happened and the revelation of the big secret felt unbelievable and sort of tacked on as a way to give the book some heft, when I didn’t really feel any need for this. The sadness of the book was already weighty enough as are the ideas of nostalgia and remorse.
That said, I read the book in a matter of a few hours. Read it because it’s sad and carefully written, and then, if you want, we can talk about the sexism of the book and why men feel entitled to sex!