The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending
Julian Barnes, 2011, 150p.
I have returned to full-time work after some time off, and my brain is a bit saggy when it comes to reading. I was reading a longer book, and the edition I had was a mass market paperback from the 1970s. The typesetting was tight and the font was flabby, and the story itself (which I will finish, I swear, etc.) centres around an incestuously connected rural community. The claustrophobia was overwhelming. I picked up The Sense of an Ending, and it was just the perfect solace.

Closer to a novella than a novel, and set openly in a calming, slender Bembo1, I felt comfortable here. Beyond the material aspects of the book, the story itself has a polar opposition to the tight knit rural aspect of the other2: The main characters have lives that touch and diverge, lives that interact in profound ways, but do not press up against each other.

Tony Webster is a middle-age man, retired from a career of little consequence. He has a wife and a daughter in his past, both also marginally in the present. An unexpected and inexplicable inheritance sets off a chain of memory and re-figuring his history.

The first section of the novel is his recollection of his friendship with Adrian Finn, an anomaly who joined his school clique. Adrian is extremely smart and much more self-possessed than the rest of the group. Webster's memory is unreliable and reconfigured, the ordering and timing of events from forty years previous is naturally gone. He remembers as we remember: incidents, particularly ones we revisit (and perhaps reauthor). Any sense of narrative can only be retrospective. The feelings of such replayed memories play rebalancing games, I think.

There are the original perceptions from the time remembered, but with a younger mind, perceived with a blunt tool. Reversing the perceptions back into a reality with an adult mind (more mellowed and circumspect) produces distortions.

"...as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been."

What happens then when we stumble upon artifacts and consequences from these times? When looking at an old photo, or reading an old letter, some shard of the reality is available for present day interrogation. The context is lost and distorted, and reconciling is jarring. Surely we can know something about our own past, but how much seems impossible to say.

When Webster receives an unexpected letter from a solicitor, he begins a process of discovery. What had he really done? What were the consequences? How much could he ever learn about his own past? This is the sort of discovery we might all make, and that occasionally we crave. What became of an old friend? What were the consequences of the way I ended things with her?

The world Tony seems to have created (but only now partially enters) is frankly a bit fantastic. His old girlfriend Veronica is extreme, Adrian Finn's actions were doubly or triply extreme, and so on. Barnes is mysterious with the plot: Webster clearly only deserves to know part of the story, and the author doesn't want to make the "truth" any more accessible to the reader. I wish Barnes had left the gaps in the motivations and sequences of the actions, rather than making the actions themselves so fantastical. Certainly it makes the truth inaccessible, but in a much less satisfying way. One of the many ideas here is that we don't live in our own wakes, consequences radiate off us and our awareness and understanding of them is necessarily incomplete. But here Tony simply appears to connect and incite unbalanced people.

This novella won the 2011 Man Booker, and I find it hard to be too critical. Indeed it is fluidly and engagingly written. There are ideas here that grab the reader and distract from the paucity of depth and breadth; the ideas presented are baldly and sometime repetitively accessible. Nothing makes the reader work hard, but the mysteries of character create an illusion of narrative depth. This mystery also seems to imply complexity in the secondary characters without having to invest much time on them. Tony is a bit of a vacuum of a character, but fortunately the story and ideas require that. When I was finished, I wasn't sure whether this was excellence of craft or some form of cheating, or perhaps something more like a shortcut executed by an craftsman. Does he take us where we want to go efficiently, or are we only going on a trip of a couple of blocks?

Thin, elegant, spare, immediate, unflabby and accessible. I was sucked in by the Bembo, and the text delivered on its promise. A promise of a literary experience in 10 easy steps, with a cola's balance of cold refreshment and warm nutty depth of flavour. This work captivated me and provided precisely what I was looking for, and I was burping away on the ideas joyfully for quite a while. Is it a great book? It shouldn't be required to be great, but perhaps winning Man Booker sets the expectations a tad too high.

  1. I am not an intense type geek, but I often will look for a note on the title verso about the typesetting. Bembo is one I always enjoy seeing.
  2. The other book is John Nichols' The Milagro Beanfield War.


An April Shroud by Reginald Hill

An April Shroud
Reginald Hill, 1975, 256p.
Series: Dalziel & Pascoe #4
A couple of years ago, I was having a terrible time reading fiction. My mind was constantly flooded with thoughts about my job and other aspects of my life, and my brain seemed incapable of engaging with the sorts of books I really wanted to read. I wanted to read literary fiction with evocative language and challenging ideas, and I would exhaust myself in a few pages and find the words simply flowing past me, and my brain crunching on the details of my day.

The solution was series detective fiction, and the series was P.D. James's Adam Dalgliesh novels. These books were full of small evocative language and small challenging ideas, cushioned with comfort and familiarity. The hero becomes familiar, the landscape becomes familiar, and the form of the story is familiar. They were indulgences without being indulgent, guilty pleasures without shame. Whenever I got discouraged with some more adventurous reading, the next Dalgliesh book could be summoned from the library and a joyful reprieve was at hand. Until, naturally, I ran out. There are only fourteen Dalgliesh books and my discipline with such things is poor.

There are 24 Dalziel & Pascoe books, and no more are forthcoming1, but this is my new go-to series for an invigorating indulgence. And this February required such an indulgence.

Ruling Passion, the previous novel in the series2, was mostly a showcase for Pascoe. Dalziel played a significant role, but we got very little internal view into him. An April Shroud opens at Pascoe and Ellie's wedding, with a precarious wedding toast from Dalziel. Pascoe heads off on honeymoon, and Dalziel conspicuously takes the opportunity for a holiday. He has lost his enthusiasm, and there is a hint of dismay at Pascoe's coupling. The April shroud here (from Keats3) is the melancholy that has fallen over Dalziel — and if you don't picture melancholy as something that Dalziel would entertain, you are in agreement with Dalziel.

The shroud is also the rain and flooding that immediately descends on Dalziel's holiday. After a very odd aquatic funeral procession, he finds himself stranded at the crumbling manor house of the Fieldings. Naturally, the circumstances of the death are questionable, and we feel confident that there will be additional bodies to follow in time. At least Hill inverts the Jessica Fletcher syndrome in this novel (as in the last) — the initial crime happens before the sleuth arrives, not after. More comedic and light than Ruling Passion, we have a dozen or so characters bouncing around to little particular end in this manor house. Too many, really, and Hill can't dedicate enough space to make even half of them interesting enough. In an on-duty mystery, the duo could knock on a door and question an old lady for a scene and we don't require a lot of commitment to the character. But in a bottle mystery like this, that old lady would hang around in the background, conspicuously uninvolved. Not that there are many old ladies in this bottle, but there are certainly two incidental sisters too many.

The Fieldings are an eccentric family, with eccentric hangers on. Some of it holds together reasonably well. The deceased's father is an aging famous poet, paranoid, irritable and tormented by the lack of opportunities his age affords him. An anarchist film-maker friend of the older son, is essentially squatting at the manor with his sister (yes, an incidental one.) But the matriarch of the family feels an oddly false fresh widow, and is an unlikely romantic leading woman to Dalziel's stupendously unlikely romantic leading man. To his credit, Dalziel finds the situation improbable too, and the potential that she is manipulating him hangs in the air.

That no one particularly seems upset by the initial death, nor the inevitable deaths that follow is remarked on but never explained. Embezzlement, theft, fraud, murder, pornography and prostitution all pop up in the walls of this manor, and in the end Dalziel never really gets a satisfying account. At least the deaths are presumed sorted out and murderers apprehended; Dalziel has his theories, but he is never really on the case, only tangled in it.

But the crimes and mysteries here are just background noise really. This is an outing for Dalziel, and all the interesting activities take place in his stout head. Hill unleashes him in the soggy countryside, gives him some self-doubt to work his way through with a romance and something close to a friend — the elderly poet stands in for Pascoe in a number of ways, but with the power structure and balance of gruffness shuffled about. And where Pascoe spent a lot of his solo time reflecting and comprehending, Dalziel spends his time being and hunching. Dalziel outside of his job is a much more likeable man, and I wished that Hill could have sent him on vacation without being forced to bring murder along for the ride.

This is an entertaining novel, but not a particularly good detective novel. The action is either offscreen or inexplicable and slapsticky. Half of the crimes either aren't crimes or aren't solved. Dalziel can't decide for most of the novel whether he should investigate seriously — and if he does investigate, how much he can keep from the on-duty police without losing conscience? As an outing with Dalziel, it gives us the series first deep look at his character, and it is worthwhile for that reason. Not that the writing isn't strong, nor is the atmosphere thin, but I have to admit that the plot is not strong, and the secondary characters thin too.


  1. Reginald Hill passed away last month at the age of 75.
  2. I previously reviewed Ruling Passion, number three in the series.
  3. The title is taken from Keats' Ode on Melancholy, though the inspiration took less of a framing role than in some of the earlier novels. Though perhaps I was simply less alert to it.


American Pastoral by Philip Roth

American Pastoral
Philip Roth, 1997, 423p.
Roth's1 longtime alter ego, writer Nathan Zuckerman, has become fascinated with Seymour "Swede" Levov. Levov was a childhood acquaintance, an older boy who was a local hero. In Jewish pre-war Newark, Levov appeared to transcend their race and accomplish an American heroism that eluded the rest of the community. Nicknamed "Swede" for his anomalous blond hair and blue eyes, Levov is a football, basketball and baseball star athlete, and son of a Newark glove magnate.

The novel starts with Zuckerman's first person narrative of his encounters with the "Swede", and the broad details of Levov's adult life are revealed. The direct encounters with Levov in the framing narrative reveal what appears to be bland American perfection. A high school sports hero, Levov joins the war effort and is elevated to hero without being deployed. He marries Miss New Jersey, 1949 (Irish-Catholic Dawn Dwyer) and inherits his father's glove empire after genuine effort. He moves out of the city to a century stone farmhouse in an upper-middle-class WASP rural bedroom community. In the 1980s, Zuckerman encounters Levov briefly, and learns that he has remarried and has young sons. Then in the 1990s, Levov mysteriously reaches out to Zuckerman, seeming to want to relate a story. They meet at a restaurant, but Levov talks mostly about his sons and about the turmoil of the 1967 Newark Riots2. Zuckerman doesn't probe, and concludes that Levov has had the sort of life one might predict. His excellence and profound American alignment have provided a frictionless life, not without effort, but without tumult.

The framing narrative ends at Zuckerman's 45th high school reunion. Levov's younger brother Jerry, a childhood friend of Zuckerman, reveals the story that carries the second narrative. In 1968, Levov's daughter Merry appears to have planted a bomb in her hometown which kills a man, presumably to protest the war in Vietnam. She is only 16 at the time, and she goes underground, never to reemerge. Zuckerman reels. Here is, he assumes, the story Levov wanted to relate, but could not. The frictionless life was upended; truly, it disintegrates in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

With the "facts" laid before the reader, along with some statement of Zuckerman's fascination, we descend into a yet deeper fiction — Zuckerman's imagining of a specific period of Levov's life. With themes and ideas explicit and the blurring of "fact" and fiction made plain in the frame narrative, Zuckerman disappears from view, never to return. This story is laid out in the third person subjective, deeply from Levov's perspective, but with Zuckerman's intents. This narrative runs roughly from the Newark Riots in 1967 to 1972 and the Watergate Hearings, with glances backwards to Merry's childhood and Levov's courtship of Dawn. As readers, we know this story is Zuckerman's attempt to rend sense from what he has assembled of Levov's life, but this indirection doesn't deflate the immediacy of the portrait.

While specific to his circumstance, and punctuated by astonishing extreme, this is a surprisingly broad portrait of American undoing.

In the midst of riot, social upheaval, integration and disintegration, is Seymour Levov's personal bomb: Something insensibly abrupt, permanently unaccountable. Roth is ruthless with Levov, and with the reader, and I admit that I spent perhaps too much of my reading awed by his daring. He builds his story around an unbelievable act, and offers us both believability and scope, but never sedates us with accountability. Causality and reason are toyed with: were they too liberal as parents? was Merry brainwashed? her debilitating stutter? or more subtle psychic poisoning of the violence and disorder of the time? Zuckerman/Roth are building a fictional reality here, and cannot allow explication here. To successfully account for Merry's choices would be farce, but Levov is human and must try.

Roth is generous, he permits Levov a partial reconstruction: another marriage, other children — though we only know of Levov's late life from the framing narrative. The story ends with a sort of washing away of the surfaces of lives, a lengthy Thanksgiving scene where many lives are revealed as veneer over disorder. It is an ending that opens out, life continues for all, with a chance for renewal but never for genuine escape.

Roth challenges, and indeed I found this a challenging book. At times slow and contemplative, but punctuated with real and imagined violence and disorder. He leaves you clamouring for a handle on both the landscape and the circumstance. There is so much here, so much detail, so much history, so many complicated relationships, so much ambivalence and tenderness, bound together with a hopeful confusion, and an almost unbearable reality seems to emerge from the confusion. Unbearable, perhaps, but generous and rewarding.

When Roth/Zuckerman's gaze settles on the descent of Levov and Merry's father/daughter relationship, I started to wonder if the novel was a poor choice for a generally anxious father of a very young daughter. Later, I wondered if maybe it should be required reading for anxious new fathers of girls. In the end, it is a nonsense question — this sort of reading can challenge and open you, or beat you down into a dark and angry space, or perhaps a dozen other outcomes all hinged on the reader. Such a work is a latent energy, and reviewing it is like reviewing kerosene. There is power here, but figure out quickly how to handle it, or set it aside.


  1. I last (and first) reviewed Roth in Everyman, a much shorter, and less punishing work.
  2. Newark plays a fairly major role in the novel, and the sensible/senseless Newark riots are a sometimes explicit counterpoint to the sensible/senseless of Merry.