At just 163 pages, The Sense of an Ending, winner of the the 2011 Man Booker Prize (a British literary prize for fiction), packs a lot into a small package. The use of language is sublime, and the characterizations are very finely crafted, with an economy of carefully chosen words. The book begins with apparently disparate memories of the now retired main character, Tony Webster, as he is thinking back over his life. He recalls an exchange between his history teacher at the end of his last year of secondary school and one of his friends, Adrian. The history teacher remarks that, "...historians need to treat a participant's own explanation of events with a certain skepticism. It is often the statement made with an eye to the future that is the most suspect."
Webster's memories of events from his young adulthood portray him as a very ordinary and likeable fellow. The ways in which the memories alter and twist as new information is divulged, now that he is in late middle age, are a fascinating commentary on how anyone's history (whether that of a nation or an individual) is plastic and malleable based on viewpoint and the unreliable nature of memory. Along the way, Webster shares other musings about life, about the human condition.
Some of these musings just make you want to pause and digest. Think back to your own adolescence and tell me if this does not resonate: "In those days, we imagined ourselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to be released into our lives. And when that moment came, our lives--and time itself--would speed up. How were we to know that our lives had in any case begun, that some advantage had already been gained, some damage already inflicted? Also, that our release would only be into a larger holding pen, whose boundaries would be at first undiscernible." (p.10). Here again, Webster comments on the tenuous nature of historical accuracy: "...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...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." (p. 13) I admit, I marked a lot of interesting passages to which I mean to return.
Perhaps I am something of a naif, but I absolutely didn't see the ending coming. I was quite surprised at how the pieces all fit together. I have heard that the mark of a good book is when it lingers in your mind. This one certainly has done that.