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Julian Barnes – The Sense of an Ending
Julian Barnes’s new book The Sense of an Ending is the favourite to win the Booker Prize. This, perhaps, is not surprising. Barnes has had three books shortlisted previously and he is, among a group including two first-time authors and the only cowboy novel ever shortlisted, maybe the obvious choice. There has been much debate this year about the shortlist; many accusing the judges of putting readability above all else. While Barnes has always been a highbrow writer in a prize which is being both praised and criticised for its popularity is he the natural winner or should his claim be more intensely criticised?
The Sense of an Ending is a meandering book by and about Tony Webster. From school to his time at university and finally to the Tony who emerges; a divorcee who is insistently happy in his normalcy. It is primarily about the memories that we come back to and how they collapse.
Tony’s views on suicide and disability make him an unlikable character. Despite this he is someone we all know. He is the friend that is discussed around the dinner table but who is never there. The open ended “so if Tony…” which his school friend Adrian writes in his diary convinces Tony that he has cursed those around him while really it is obvious his life means little to anyone.
Tony is constantly uncertain; his teenage question, “yes of course we were pretentious – what else is youth for?” seems to set the rhythm for the novel. He is forever asking for reification and the teenage demeanour of cocky assuredness hiding a lack of confidence continues. Some of this uncertainty from the narrator seems inexplicably to be that of the author too. Throughout there is a sense that if you looked over your shoulder you would find Julian Barnes standing there, gauging your every reaction.
This is a not a book that I would rave about. While reading it I felt little emotion towards it but writing about it reveals that here are questions which frighten us all. If those disapproving journalists are looking for a novel whose lasting questions last longer than its readability they should look no further than The Sense of an Ending. Barnes takes the idea of death and moves it nearer to us. Death and mortality is no longer the ultimate fear. What is the fear here is “the end of any likelihood of change,” a feeling Tony compares to a wave “rushing past and vanishing upstream.”
I am as yet, like Tony, uncertain if it deserves to win. But then perhaps that is Barnes’s triumph; we are left wondering uneasily.
Esi Edugyan – Half Blood Blues
1939; Hitler is on the rise in Europe and jazz is being threatened. In Paris, a small group is preparing to record, until a deep betrayal means that the virtuosic trumpet player Hiero is taken to a concentration camp.
There are many stereotypes that this book plays up to; set in 1940s Europe, minority characters are on the run from Hitler, and African Americans are jazz musicians. The story misses a golden opportunity to be one of the very few books written about the plight of the stateless Afro-German citizens who were made nationless by the tyranny of the Nazi party. However their plight is sidelined by the way the tale is told through the eyes of Sid, the main character whose journey from 1939 to 1999 is told selfishly and exclusively as a tale of his personal injustices.
As is common in all books where, although fictional, there is an attempt to make it feel like there’s a chance of the events actually happening, there are characters from history who are dropped in. Here, the most notable cameo comes from the jazz legend Louis Armstrong, whose input is limited to a short appearance.
The story jumps backwards and forwards between the two timelines which on occasion gets a bit confusing (made even more so when a third time stream is introduced briefly) and makes the different stories hard to follow. However, the stories are fairly simplistic so there are few twists and turns that get lost or covered over.
Overall, the book is readable and keeps the reader guessing, however it missed the big opportunity it had to become a meaningful book about the plight of the Afro-Germanic peoples under the third reich, and remains solely a piece of light reading.