Just back from Ireland and as usual with a stock of books bought at the airport Eason´s that always has great bargains and special offers. This time it was the three for two offer. I use such opportunities to be more experimental in my choice of book and perhaps pick an author I have previously not read.
And so I arrived home with three more books. The first of the three I decided to read was a small novel, about 50,000 words - the Man Booker Prize winner The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.
Having missed the run up to the award ceremony and never having read anything by him before, I went into this book with zero expectation and entirely unbiased. About thirty pages in, I began to question the Man Booker Jury’s decision, as the story had, up to that point, failed to completely grab my attention. The narrative bordered on the superficial, characters remained two dimensional and it was unclear exactly what the motivation for this novel actually was.
Into part two, and my curiosity is sparked. I find myself grabbing odd moments to read a few pages. Barnes is, by his unusual approach enticing me to read on.
This is a first person narrative. The narrator, Tony, is a divorced man in his sixties, who, by means of an inheritance, is confronted with specific actions in his past.
The other characters in the novel are incomplete, almost caricature, but now I am beginning to get it. They could not be otherwise because the entire premise of the novel is in fact that Tony, the narrator, lacked the insight and empathy to understand those around him, even his closest friends. It is precisely his inability to truly see and accurately assess situations and the behavior of those involved in them, that is the issue in this story.
The narrator has failed to enrich his emotional world by taking a plunge off the deep end and now, late in life, he realizes that he has structured his entire existence around maintaining his limited viewpoint. To see more, would have upset his equilibrium and his notion of who he was, and who others were in relation to him. The inheritance evokes old memories, old situations, and gives him a second chance as it were, to discover the truth.
But even in this latter phase of his life, having again failed to empathize with his old girlfriend, the same girlfriend he so badly misunderstood in the past, and left alone, the penny finally drops.
It is with a sense of melancholy and regret that the story comes to a close.
The fact that Barnes has managed to keep the reader intrigued and curious, while at the same time creating a narrator with such a limited viewpoint is an amazing feat. I, the reader, see every situation through the eyes of a limited protagonist. His reality is my reality. I believe it completely. Only when the scales partially fall from his eyes and not a second sooner, do they fall from mine.
It is ironical and paradoxical that in a first person narrative with just such a narrator, Barnes displays amazing insight and understanding of human nature. It is therefore only on finishing the book, and pondering on it, that I truly realized just how great this book really was.
A well-deserved Man Booker Prize Winner. And now, winner of the European Prize for Literature!