Book Review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Posted February 17, 2012 by Heather in Book Reviews / 13 Comments

Book Review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian BarnesThe Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Published by Knopf on October 2011
Genres: Fiction
Format: eBook
Pages: 176
Source: my shelves

Goodreads | Amazon


Winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize

Tony Webster is a typically pretentious and philosophical teenager attending a London prep school, when his history teacher asks of the class, “What is history?” Tony knowingly answers, “History is the lies of the victors,” to which the history teacher responds, “Well, as long as you remember that it is also the self-delusions of the defeated.” When asked the same question, Tony’s friend Adrian quotes Patrick Lagrange and answers, “‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.‘” Adrian’s response is the main theme of The Sense of an Ending, and it will come back to haunt Tony when he least expects it.

From the author’s website:

Tony Webster and his clique first met Adrian Finn at school. Sex-hungry and book-hungry, they navigated the girl drought of gawky adolescence together, trading in affectations, in-jokes, rumour and wit. Maybe Adrian was a little more serious than the others, certainly more intelligent, but they swore to stay friends forever. Until Adrian’s life took a turn into tragedy, and all of them, especially Tony, moved on and did their best to forget.

Now Tony is in middle age. He’s had a career and a marriage, a calm divorce. He gets along nicely, he thinks, with his one child, a daughter, and even with his ex-wife. He’s certainly never tried to hurt anybody. Memory, though, is imperfect. It can always throw up surprises, as a lawyer’s letter is about to prove. The unexpected bequest conveyed by that letter leads Tony on a dogged search through a past suddenly turned murky. And how do you carry on, contentedly, when events conspire to upset all your vaunted truths?

This is such a good book. How is it that I had gone so long without knowing about Julian Barnes or reading any of his work? I don’t know how to even begin to do The Sense of an Ending justice here, and all I really want to say is READ IT NOW… please? I was hooked from the moment Tony and his pretentious prep school friends started quoting philosophy and having amazing discussions in their prep school classes. I stayed hooked when the story became a mystery of sorts, and I was stumped until the very end. Oh, and the ending? WHOA. I didn’t see THAT coming.

The characters are wonderful–lovably, maddeningly, complexly wonderful. I fell in love with Adrian’s intelligence and wisdom, then had my heart broken more than once; Tony frustrated me with his naïveté, but swept me off my feet with his meditations about time, memory, and character; Veronica ticked me off beyond belief at first, then demanded sympathy which I willingly gave her in the end. All of the major characters in this book are so very realistic and well-written.

This is the most quotable book I’ve read in a long time, so I’m going to share some of my favorites with you and let the writing speak for itself…

Adrian on ascribing responsibility in historical situations like war:

But of course, my desire to ascribe responsibility might be more a reflection of my own cast of mind than a fair analysis of what happened. That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.

Tony reflecting on Adrian’s state of mind:

He had a better mind and a more rigorous temperament that me; he thought logically, and then acted on the conclusion of logical thought. Whereas most of us, I suspect, do the opposite: we make an instinctive decision, then build up an infrastructure of reasoning to justify it. And call the result common sense.

Tony on history:

History isn’t the lies of the victors, as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt; I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.

Tony on time, past decisions, and his avoidance of adventure:

But time… how time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them. Time… give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical.

Tony on character:

Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does: otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities, but that’s something different, more like decoration. Perhaps character resembles intelligence, except that character peaks a little later: between twenty and thirty, say. And after that, we’re just stuck with what we’ve got. We’re on our own. If so, that would explain a lot of lives, wouldn’t it? And also–if this isn’t too grand a word–our tragedy.

I could go on, but I’d rather you read the book and experience all of it in context.

I don’t know about the rest of Julian Barnes’ books, but this one is terrifically well-written and engrossing. I loved it and I highly recommend it.


  • wow. you read soooo fast. lol. i’m just in shock and awe. adding this one to my list.

    • I was reading pretty fast when I read this… I’ve slowed down a bit lately–too much screen time.

  • I have heard a lot of good things about the book, especially from book podcasts, in particular The Readers, and am looking forward to reading it when I get a copy from my library.

    • I was kind of afraid of the hype monster with this one when I started reading it, but it is worth all of the hype it has received.

  • Rebecca

    I liked this one too– so much to discuss. The only other Barnes I’ve read is Arthur and George, which is based on a real crime. I liked the first half but not the second.

    • I’m planning on checking out more of his stuff as soon as I conquer more of my huge TBR pile. This one would definitely make for a good book club discussion.

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  • Matthew (

    So glad you’re a champion of this book too. I’ve just read it for a book group and found it small, but beautifully formed. I definitely think it will resonate with a lot of people, so I’m glad to see those who have enjoyed it spreading the word in such an eloquent style.

    My review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

    • Thank you so much, Matthew. This is definitely one of those books that will stay with me for a long time.

  • Oooh, I’m glad you liked this. It’s on my list of books to read, but I keep seeing really mixed reviews. I will ignore the bad reviews and just look forward to it!

    • I think this is one of those books that people love or hate… there seems to be no in between. I love it. I would definitely give it a shot, if I were you. 🙂

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