Julian Barnes has won the 2011 Man Booker Prize for The Sense of an Ending. The Man Booker is awarded annually to a novel written by a citizen of the Commonwealth, Ireland, or Zimbabwe. Gaby Wood, a judge of this year's prize, explains why the novel was selected.
Tony Webster is an ordinary man. That's how he likes to portray himself, and it's how he's lived--willfully, you might say. Pain, mystery, even pleasure: those are things better suited, he suggests, to cleverer people. And yet--as the reader of his narration discovers--the path of least resistance is not as phlegmatic as it looks: it must be carved assiduously.
The meager facts of Tony's intimate CV are dealt with in a couple of pat pages--marriage, birth of daughter, divorce. And so we know that this book is not about information but interpretation--and that is up for grabs from the start. "If I can't be sure of the actual events any more," Tony tells us, before recalling things that began to unfold when he was a teenager, "I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left. That's the best I can manage."
He introduces himself, in other words, as the most reliable of narrators: lucid, articulate and wise to the unreliability of memory itself. What's more, he's too glum, too lame, too emotionally inactive to be a traditionally unreliable narrator; what, you wonder, would be the point? Is he even capable of being that calculating?
The shock comes about half-way through: external evidence that our narrator is not who he thinks he is arrives in the form of a letter he wrote long ago. His ability to cause pain, and his inability to see its effects, turn the book into a kind of psychological thriller, without ever breaking stride with the rest of Tony's tone.
Some of this territory--English schoolboys, Englishness itself packaged in a philosophical framework more associated with the French--is not new for Barnes. What is new is what he can do with this material now. Only a great writer could come up with an extraordinary book about banality. That the tragedy trapped in this mundane life should be so moving, and so keenly felt by the character that he can only confront it half-blindly and in fragments, is the mark of a truly masterful novel.
The book is short, and the question of how much these few pages offer is an important one--not only because of their exceptional emotional resonance but also because by the end there are so many details to unpack and so many circumstances to reinterpret that the reader feels compelled to start again. And given that every reading is more rewarding than the last, my suspicion is that you will have read 450 pages of this 150-page novel before remotely wanting to put it down.
Gaby Wood is Head of Books at the Daily Telegraph. She was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award in the United States, and has written for the London Review of Books, Granta and Vogue. She worked for many years at the Observer, where she held posts including deputy literary editor, review editor, senior feature writer and New York correspondent.