There is always a certain amount of expectation when you read an award-winning book – you know that although a little subjectivity is bound to come into the decision, the book which wins must surely win for a good reason. My personal reactions to award winning books has varied – I loved The English Patient and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, winners of the Man Booker Prize and Commonwealth Writers Prize, respectively, while I found Midnight’s Children (winner of the Booker of Bookers) to be good, and intriguing, but far from a favourite book for me.
With an overall fairly positive response to award winning books, though, I came to The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, with a certain amount of expectation. Silly me. I should know better than to raise my hopes before reading a book, or watching a film, or hearing an album. Only in rare events do I do this, and normally then it turns out to be warranted.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate this book. I just didn’t love it, either. I am disappointed, to be honest. The short, 150 page novel (or is this a novella? It sits in that awkward space in between the two, it seems, but this is unimportant) is split into two parts. The first, shorter part, focuses on Tony Webster’s young life – his education, his first girlfriend Veronica, his tight circle of friends and how they all let newcomer Adrian, who seems more serious and intelligent, into their lives. By the end of this first part, despite what happens, it’s clear they almost idolise Adrian. The second part skips forward several decades, to when Tony is now retired, has had a career and a marriage which ended in divorce, and he is no longer in contact with the characters from earlier in the book. His memory is of a calm life, never trying to hurt anybody, never having any real effect on anybody’s life, until a letter from his past causes him to question the life he has constructed in his own mind.
It is an okay premise for a story, with some interesting pondering on how we construct our own truths from our memories, and how accurate these internal biographies might be, but the book had some flaws. The writing overall wasn’t amazing – not bad, but there wasn’t any moments I found myself swept away by the language style. However, this isn’t always important -I have loved some books with similarly average writing. What disappointed me with this story was the fact that at times it seemed to lack direction, and more than just in plot – it felt like I was constantly guessing what kind of story it was, whether or not it was a “whodunnit” as the back of the book suggests, or a romance story, or who knows what else. And when I finally got to the end of the book, after all of the unpredictability, I found a twist about ten pages from the end to be amazingly poignant and powerful, only to have another twist in the final couple of pages, which was entirely unnecessary and pointless, completely ruin the ending. My reaction to finishing the book involved putting it down, shaking my head, and mumbling “what the hell was that” to myself.
I’m not saying this is a bad book. It was just disappointing, and I don’t really understand why it won an award – the insights into life and memory are interesting, but far from profound or new. The writing is not sensational. The story itself is odd and ultimately pointless. The characters are developed in interesting ways, and perhaps this is the one aspect keeping this book together, but on the whole The Sense of an Ending did not blow me away.
Have you read this book? What did you think of it, if so? Do you think it deserved to win this award?