Perhaps the title says it all. It is a “sense” – a vague feeling rather than a definite conclusion. Very little is definite in this novel, especially since its protagonist Tony (Anthony) is not quite a reliable narrator. At the very least he’s upfront about it. From the very beginning he admits that his memory isn’t accurate – no one’s is, is the point.
I have a soft spot for novels and stories that discuss the odd truths about memory and its weaknesses. One of my favourite movies (and I’m sure I’ve mentioned it quite a few times before) is Hong Kong’s Metade Fumaca – a movie that stands testament to how man shapes and reshapes memories, not for others but mainly for himself. As Barnes puts it:
How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but—mainly—to ourselves.
There is no denying that the novel is superbly written and that its subject matter is one worth pondering. Sometimes, though, you get the feeling that the plot exists merely to serve as a very thin support structure within which Barnes can engage in philosophical navel-gazing. It’s not so much a novel as it is a collection of bon mots.
But yes, let us try and understand his plot and his characters. Veronica, in particular, stands out because Tony spends much of his time thinking about her, alternately admiring and despising her. It’s your first love affair and it went sour – obviously you only have bitter memories of that person you once loved. In Veronica’s case, Tony’s memories of her landed her the nickname “Fruitcake”.
That in itself is an indictment of memory and narrative. Tony’s ex-wife gives Veronica that nickname based solely on Tony’s stories. The two women never meet.
But we as readers do meet Veronica. We have the good fortune of having read her emails (with documentation we don’t have to fear the unreliable narration). She isn’t exactly the horrifying and manipulative harpy Tony painted her to be in the first half of the book. He admits as much. And yet we see just why he found her so difficult and frustrating. Veronica is a bitch with a capital B.
She’s damaged, yes, but there’s no reason why she can’t just come out in the open and tell Tony what the fuck happened. Why all the drama and the “you didn’t get it then and you never will” line ad nauseum? It isn’t Tony’s fault. Telling Adrian to speak to Veronica’s mother isn’t equal to him getting them in bed together. For her to blame Tony, well, we may infer that she was dealing with distorted memories of her own.
“The Sense of an Ending” is a beautifully written book, but is it a beautifully written story? Perhaps not.