How good are our memories of long past events? Certainly we recall where we were when we heard the Challenger blew up or the Twin Towers were attacked. We probably recall our first car, first job, first sexual experience. But how good are our memories for the details? The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, how accurate are they? I suspect, based on a limited sample (myself), not very.
And what happens when we discover the stories we tell ourselves are not only not true, but reveal just how thoughtless, insensitive, cruel, and viscous we actually were (and may still be)? That's what happens to Tony Webster, the narrator of Julian Barnes brilliant Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sense of an Ending.
Tony, divorced, in comfortable retirement, tells his own story. He seems reasonable, thoughtful. Looking back to his school days he says, "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."
Tony has school chums, becomes involved with a young woman Veronica, spends one weekend at her house with her family, breaks up with her, and lives another forty or so placid, comfortable years. One day he receives a solicitors' letter informing him that Veronica's mother, deceased, has left him 500 pounds and two documents. Tony cannot imagine why she would have done such a thing and wants to look at the documents, one of them the diary of a school chum who killed himself years earlier. In trying to find out why (why the legacy, why the diary, why won't Veronica give it up), Tony learns far more than wanted to know.
This is a short book. I read it in an evening. I found it particularly engaging because I am now writing a novel in which two adult children are trying to understand their dead father and make sense of their memories of him. I found it both moving and wise. As Barnes writes: "We live with such easy assumptions, don't we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it's all much odder than this. Who was it who said that memory is what we thought we'd forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn't act as a fixative, rather as a solvent...."