Two-thirds of the way through Julian Barnes‘ novel, which won the latest coveted Man Booker Prize, the protagonist’s ex-wife quietly tells him, “‘Tony, you’re on your own now.’” Indeed, Tony Webster – middle-aged, retired, divorced (albeit rather amicably), his only child immersed with her own family – is seemingly content with his mostly solitary life in London, until a letter arrives from a woman he met just once some 40 years ago.
As a schoolboy in the 1960s, Tony’s trio of best buddies adds a fourth, an enigmatic new arrival named Adrian. While they are self-admittedly pretentious – “what else is youth for?” – Adrian proves to be their intellectual superior. The foursome are fascinated with a boy in their class who hangs himself after impregnating his girlfriend – although eventually, they judge his actions to be “wrong.” They soon enough head to universities, “promis[ing] lifelong friendship, and went [their] separate ways.” Tony has his first serious relationship with fellow student Veronica, although it ends bitterly. Adrian writes to say he and Veronica are involved. Tony graduates, he travels a bit, and comes home to learn that Adrian has committed suicide.
Four decades and a lifetime later, Tony is confronted with his past when he receives a solicitor’s letter representing Veronica’s mother, now deceased. Having met during a “humiliating weekend” with Veronica’s family, Mrs. Ford posthumously apologizes “for the way my family treated you all those years ago,” inexplicably wills him £500, and … Adrian’s diary. The solicitor is working to recover the diary on Tony’s behalf from Veronica who is unwilling to let it go. Following his curiosity over this surprising bequest, Tony seeks out Veronica who disdains him, befuddles him, challenges him … and forces him to re-examine his long-distanced youth.
Deceptively slim, Ending is a multi-layered exploration of storytelling: woven into Tony’s narrative are infinite questions and observations about memory, perspective, history, and both the kindness and destruction associated with time. Barnes literally presents the story in actual layers: part one as memory (“Or rather, my memory now of my reading then of what was happening at the time”), and part two as re-examining and re-configuring those memories with stark new information from unexpected others. Reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro‘s spectacular The Remains of the Day (another Booker winner, in 1989) which may be the superior title, Endings will nevertheless remain with you long after that final page.
This is definitely a title for which I would highly recommend the audible version; as it’s a mere 163 pages in print, it’s just over 4.5 hours stuck in the ears. Read by British actor Richard Morant (who himself died suddenly last November) with subdued composure, you can actually hear that proverbial ‘stiff upper lip’ … fiercely containing the regret, intently controlling the sorrow.