Julian Barnes' ordinary man shuffles through time

Book review: 'The Sense of an Ending,' by Julian Barnes. Knopf, $23.95.

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If you keep score, the thousands of decisions you've made in your lifetime can be toted up as a record of failure or success, an exceptional life or an average one.

Tony Webster's scorecard totals "average." The 60ish protagonist of British author Julian Barnes' slim new novel surveys his past with resignation and remorse in a search to understand the actions that carved his path from teenager to unremarkable middle-ager.

Mr. Barnes implies that it's a search we all take as we grow older. Our companions are a shaky memory and an unreliable sense of time.

"The Sense of an Ending" is largely a philosophical exploration on time and memory, even if the hunter is an ordinary man, in fact, a guy whom readers might find boring in his passivity and self-pity.

Divorced and the father of a grown-up daughter who largely ignores him, Tony seems content to putter around with a little volunteer work and an occasional pint with friends. Yet, when he turns to memories of Adrian, a dead school pal, Tony feels inadequate:

"I had lost the friends of my youth. I had lost the love of my wife. I had abandoned the ambitions I had entertained. I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded -- and how pitiful that was."

Adrian, on the other hand, was a brilliant thinker, the best of the brightest at Tony's secondary school who went on to Cambridge University while Tony settled for a lesser college where he plodded along.

The high point of his college days was a romance with the enigmatic Veronica. Painted by Mr. Barnes, the girlfriend was a judgmental and distant sort, hardly an attractive partner, so the relationship is hard to accept. After Tony -- to our relief -- breaks up with her, Adrian takes up with Veronica after asking her ex-boyfriend's approval.

There Mr. Barnes' unremarkable story seems to sputter out, although he adds a dramatic turn with Adrian's shocking suicide in graduate school.

Forty years later, Tony must confront the events of his youth when he unexpectedly receives a small inheritance from Veronica's mother as well as the promise of getting Adrian's diary.

Without the fictional contrivance of this unlikely intrusion into Tony's humdrum life, our hero would be doomed to live out his ordinary life. Instead, it's the device Mr. Barnes employs to pursue his thoughts on how memory and time can be manipulated to preserve our illusions.

"For years you survive with the same loops, the same facts and the same emotions," Tony remarks. "But what if, even at a late stage, your emotions relating to those long-ago events and people change?"

Mr. Barnes then devises such an artificial sort of "mystery" to illustrate his thoughts on the subjective use of memory that we lose any sympathy for Tony and even less for the resurfaced Veronica. Tony has contacted her to get Adrian's diary, which she kept after her mother's death.

"You don't get it!" she angrily accuses Tony as his newly acquired memory of past events surfaces, but there's no way he can "get it" without the key facts, which the author withholds until the unsatisfactory conclusion.

"The Sense of an Ending" lacks the details and sense of reality that make Mr. Barnes' previous novels rewarding reading. Instead the payoff here is unremarkable, as ordinary as Tony's life.

However, the novel just won this year's Man Booker Prize, the British Commonwealth's highest fiction honor.

Bob Hoover: bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.


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