The Sense of an Ending (2011) by Julian Barnes
The Sense of an Ending is currently second favourite to win the 2011 Booker Prize, and it's typical of this sort of heavily lauded, critically acclaimed book. I don't necessarily mean that in a disparaging way, but I've noted before that the formula for award nominations and congratulatory reviews seems to be: well-established author + story featuring an ageing character looking back on events in their own life + much contemplation of the nature and significance of memory. This is a perfect example of the type.
The narrator is Tony Webster, who is now retired and considers his existence to have been, in the main, mediocre and uneventful, but also largely happy. In looking back on the events of his life, Tony returns repeatedly to the friends of his teenage years and the messy end of his first, largely chaste, relationship with the spiky Veronica. He initially presents his recollections of these experiences as largely accurate, but as the story progresses, we learn that all may not be as it appears - not because Tony is an unreliable narrator, at least not the type you normally encounter, but because he has excluded everything he wished to forget from his own memories. When he receives an unexpected and surprising bequest, he is forced to re-examine what he thinks he remembers about Veronica and his friends (particularly the precocious Adrian) and, in the process, begins to reconsider his whole identity, considering how his edited memories may have contributed to his character and choices.
I thought this short novel was beautifully written, and at the beginning I felt instantly compelled to read on. The idea of looking back on youthful friendships later torn apart, and slowly uncovering the reasons for this, is always an appealing one for me. Tony isn't the most likeable character of all time, but he's affable enough; his mediocrity and lack of ambition make him unthreatening, and perhaps easier to relate to than I'd like to admit. However, I was left confused by the ending. I won't go into what happens so as not to spoil it for any prospective readers, but there's a 'revelation' which seemed, to me, very much like a deus ex machina moment, and I didn't think either the event itself or Tony's reaction to it stood up to much analysis - which is perhaps why it had to be delivered right at the very end. (I also really wished Tony wouldn't keep referring to the... thing that he and Veronica would do in lieu of 'full sex'. Despite being far from explicit, it made me feel really queasy.)
Part of me would like to give this a higher rating, but I always have this slight bias against very short books. If they're poor anyway they feel totally pointless, and if they're good - like this one - I can't help but feel a bit cheated that the story wasn't more fleshed out, or that it finished when it did. In this case, I'd have liked to see more of the friends' schooldays and more pages from Adrian's diary, perhaps some of the aftermath of Tony's eventual discovery. That said, I did find Barnes's writing very beguiling, and I'd like to read more by the author at some point.