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 ‘The Sense of an Ending’ by English writer Julian Barnes – his 11th novel – was awarded the 2011 Man Booker Prize. In this novel, Tony Webster, now in his 60’s, muses about his past, discovering it can be interpreted otherwise than he has always seen it.

Tony, a cautious man, is long-divorced with one grown daughter. He is mostly content with his life and in his retirement. He still lunches with his ex-wife and sees his daughter from time to time. He thinks of himself as content – as “peaceable.”

He receives a letter one day from an estate lawyer, informing him that the mother of his college girlfriend Veronica has left him the diary of a school friend, Adrian Finn, and 500 pounds. This legacy causes him to recall their relationship, one that ended bitterly. He had thought he had forgotten about it.

Tony, Adrian and two other boys had been best friends as schoolboys. All of them were “book-hungry” at school; all thought of themselves as scholars. Adrian, the most brilliant, went to Cambridge while Tony went to Bristol. The friends had promised to keep in touch forever, but life got in the way and they lost contact with one another. The first half of the novel is Tony’s version of youthful friendship with Adrian, and with Veronica. 

Tony had closed that chapter of his life with calm and precision. But now, remembering and reexamining, things appear in a different light. He finds he must question his whole life in view of new information about those people.

The writing is exquisite and amusing at times. This novel traces one particular memory towards an explanation that leaves a sense of uneasiness that is difficult to dismiss as is Tony’s inability to reconstruct his relations with either Veronica or Adrian in the not-quite-buried past. The mystery of just what exactly happened all those years ago is compelling both to Tony and the reader. “The Sense of an Ending,” though a short book, speaks powerfully to aging, the malleability of memory, and what it means to look back and reassess.