I am forever indebted to my Brit Lit 1890-1950 professor. Thanks to him I read The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, a book I’d never heard of. I read it in one sitting and it immediately went down as one of my favorite novels. I’m not sure how this book doesn’t get more attention, it’s one of the pillars of 20th century literature, but even among the well-read I rarely find someone who knows it, not to mention who’s read it.
Still, it was no surprise to see references to The Good Soldier while reading reviews for Julian Barnes’ new Booker-winning novel, The Sense of an Ending. They are certainly related in the world of literature, maybe brothers or perhaps cousins. And I loved them in much the same way.
Now I know there are things about certain books, particularly Literature-with-a-capital-L, that can be a turn-off. I definitely have them. And books about older men reminiscing on their lives get not only a *yawn* from me but a full on *snore.* It’s likely I never would have read The Sense of an Ending at all were it not for two things: 1, it’s short; 2, I read Barnes’ previous novel, Arthur & George, a few years ago and loved it.
So why should you read The Sense of an Ending despite the fact that it’s an older man looking back on his life? Because it has a structure that works so well and so tightly, it’s almost like a mystery.
And–this is a huge compliment from me–it’s a book that made me slow down when I read it. (Even though I read it in two sittings within one night.) I have a problem with speed reading, which is probably one reason why difficult books are not always my forte. Every now and then a book with particularly lovely writing breaks through and makes me read every line. (Last year it was The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker, another totally-not-my-type novel full of random musings by a poet that was completely enchanting.)
Let’s get to the meat of it, shall we? TSOAE is about Tony Webster and is broken into two parts. The first is a retelling of his youth. It focuses on two people in particular, his precociously intelligent friend Adrian and his enigmatic girlfriend Veronica. His telling of the story is important, since it turns out Tony will be a classic unreliable narrator. (See above references to the greatest such unreliable narrator in The Good Soldier.) In the second half of the book a strange turn of events brings Adrian and Veronica and all that happened between the three of them back together, even though Tony had long since left them behind.
We all have a narrative of our lives, in particular when it comes to our previous lovers. I know I do, and I am pretty sure that I put my previous relationships in a very different light than my ex’s would. This can be all a matter of perspective. Or it could be a totally different set of facts. The mystery of the second half of TSOAE is just how right is Tony about his past, is he just looking at things from a different perspective or are there real things he doesn’t understand?
As Tony and Veronica slowly rebuild communication and have a series of bizarre emails and encounters, you can’t help but be wondering what really is going on and hoping Tony will finally get to the bottom of things.
I would tell you more, but I feel that too many reviews give too much away already. It’s best to read the first section knowing very little about the characters. Especially because we want the opportunity to reevaluate them all just as Tony does.
Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed this book so much more than the usual old-man-reminiscing fare. Because I was able to work out the possible interpretations of the past just as Tony was. I could judge his own conclusions, draw conclusions of my own, and gradually see where the facts took us.
Oh, and if you read it (or if you’ve read it already) you will probably read the astonishing last few pages and have to reevaluate all over again. Or you may do some mad googling as I did to see what others thought. For you, I have a spoiler-heavy separate page to go over what happened and why I think it works brilliantly.
This book will definitely go down as a highlight of the year for me. Any book that stumbles around in my head and keeps me awake at 3:30 in the morning is bound to do that.
Thanks to Edelweiss and Knopf for providing me with an advance e-copy of this book for review purposes. I would have read it much earlier had I realized they’d moved up its publication date to October 5! But the good news is it’s already available at bookstores everywhere and given its new prizewinning status, you shouldn’t have too difficult a time finding it.