Friday, December 2, 2011

The Sense of an Ending

This new novel by Booker Award nominee (English literary prize) Julian Barnes has been receiving kudos everywhere I read about it, even from readers whose taste I truly respect. Linda, I'm talking about you. But.....this novel left me chilled. That doesn't mean that I don't recommend it to people because I want to hear why from those who were bowled over by it. I'm especially waiting to hear what my sister thought since, unbeknown to each other, we each started reading this book on the same day.

Personally, I have difficulty with unlikeable characters. If I can't tolerate their company I have to wonder how other readers can. Some novels can simply be appreciated for the quality of the writing, no matter how we feel about the narrator, which may be why so many readers are praising Barnes and his narcissistic storyteller, Tony Webster.

Middle-aged (aren't we all?), retired but active enough, divorced but on good terms with his ex-wife, who is actually quite a lovely secondary character, in touch with his daughter, Tony is brought up short when he receives legal notice that he's the recipient of a seemingly small yet potent legacy; the bequest is the diary of a college friend who committed suicide some time earlier. The odd thing is, and what gives the novel a frisson of suspense, is that this diary has been in the custody of a former lover's mother. Got that?

Tony, as those of a certain age tend to do, begins to re-evaluate old memories from his youth brought to the fore by these "remembrances of things past." He mulls over a weekend he spent in the country with this former girlfriend, Veronica, and her family, and the strange simpatico that he felt with his girl's mother. He relives his schooldays when he and his cadre enjoyed long, meandering, pretentious conversations about life, philosophy, and history, in that insufferable manner that only 20 year olds can.

Then, against his better judgement, and the warnings of others, he contacts Veronica, setting in motion a strange dance between the two, in which she refuses to be forthright and he continues to be obtuse. This examination of memory and time is a common literary conceit, one that especially fascinates me as my brother, sister and I have such extremely varying recollections of our childhoods even though there's only a 4 year span among the three of us.

So yes, kudos to Barnes for the gorgeous, concise (176 p.) language. Perhaps Tony Webster is meant to be unlikeable, or perhaps, the older I get the less willing I am to give fictional characters a second chance. There are too many others out there just waiting to meet me! As a matter of fact, I can't wait to tell you about the great book I just reviewed for Library Journal peopled with truly marvelous characters. More as soon as it's published.

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