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The Sense of an Ending - A book review

I read this book in 2 days. I was compelled to. I have even sent two copies, one to my professor and the other to a friend. Because I wanted to talk about it, listen to what they have to say. And I write here, to hear back from you.

“I had been tempted, somehow, by the notion that we could excise most of our separate existences, could cut and splice the magnetic tape on which our lives are recorded, go back to that fork in the path and take the road less traveled, or rather not traveled at all.”

This is an intense novel, following a man who is content, and has never given much thought to his past, leading a mundane life. Or it appears to be so from the beginning. It's one of those stories, that makes you wonder that there were two stories written in parallel, and you only saw one. You reach the end and then sit back, thinking, that you had all the clues in the hindsight but you never pieced them together. Nor did our protagonist. Or did he?

“Again, I must stress that this is my reading now of what happened then. Or rather, my memory now of my reading then of what was happening at the time.”

Tony Webster, who 'never got it', as yelled by his college girlfriend Veronica, is forced to revisit his past in his 60s. The protagonist is an unreliable narrator, who remembers things in no particular order or as they were. Tony's college friend, Adrian Finn is an embodiment of a philosophical stance, as is clear by his wit, but the one with all his brilliance makes some dumb decisions and makes them sound and look reasonable with his smart theories of conclusion.

“We live with such easy assumptions, don’t we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it's all much odder than this. Who was it said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it's not convenient — It's not useful —  to believe this; it doesn’t help us to get on with our lives; so we ignore it.”

The two main characters, Tony and Adrian, have contrasting yet connected personalities. The friendship is seen up to a certain level of admiration and jealousy. Talking about the contrasts, the book has successfully seeded a question in our mind, about the approach to perceive life as either a logical equation with all the sums and subtractions and divisions and multiplications pertaining to the relationships or as a simple ‘go with the wind’ kind of living that might generate self-insufficiency, like guilt in the later years of one’s life for not taking enough chances to improvise.

In those days, we imagined ourselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to be released into our lives. And when that moment came, our lives and time itself would speed up. How were we to know that our lives had in any case begun, that some advantage had already been gained, some damage already inflicted? Also, that our release would only be into a larger holding pen, whose boundaries would be at first undiscernible.”

For a major part, this book allows you to question your own false memories and bad decisions. Also, you question your perception of matters that went unnoticed with time or you just somehow made a simpler sense of them, when they were actually profound.

History isn’t the lie of the victors, as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt; I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.”

I can put the book in the category of philosophical fiction given its content on the relativity of time and memory and complex matters of love and life.

The end truly sets you back with a shock, and you find yourself revisiting the pages looking for a slight hint, but you fail. And this I think is beauty. Although critics have suggested a number of alternative theories for a better end, I personally find the original very intriguing.

“How often do we tell our own life stories? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, told to others-but mainly to ourselves.”

This is a beautiful read which I highly recommend. I tend to fall for characters that are hard to understand, and their stories that are reflections of my own, and also I am quoting down a few excerpts from the book that I love.

“I certainly believe we all suffer damage, one way or another. How could we not, except in a world of perfect parents, siblings, neighbors, companions? And then there is the question, on which so much depends, of how we react to the damage: whether we admit it or repress it, and how this affects our dealings with others. Some admit the damage, and try to mitigate it; some spend their lives trying to help others who are damaged; and then there are those whose main concern is to avoid further damage to themselves, at whatever cost. And those are the ones who are ruthless, and the ones to be careful of.”

” I remember a period in late adolescence when my mind would make itself drunk with images of adventurousness. This is how it will be when I grow up. I shall go there, do this, discover that, love her, and then her and her and her. I shall live as people in novels live and have lived. Which ones I was not sure, only that passion and danger, ecstasy and despair (but then more ecstasy) would be in attendance. However…who said that thing about “the littleness of life that art exaggerates“? There was a moment in my late twenties when I admitted that my adventurousness had long since petered out. I would never do those things adolescence had dreamt about. Instead, I mowed my lawn, I took holidays, I had my life. But time…how time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but we were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them. Time…give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical.”

Whisky, I find, helps clarity of thought. And reduces pain. It has the additional virtue of making you drunk or, if taken in sufficient quantity, very drunk. {I personally love this :)}

I gave up on life, gave up on examining it, took it as it came. And so for the first time, I began to feel more general remorse– a feeling somewhere between self-pity and self-hatred — about my whole life. All of it. I had lost the friends of my youth. I had lost the love of my wife. I had abandoned the ambitions I had entertained. I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded  — and how pitiful that was.”

“Our characters and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities. But that’s something different, more like decoration. Perhaps character resembles intelligence, except that character peaks a little later: between twenty and thirty, say. And after that, we are just stuck with what we’ve got. We are on our own. If so, that would explain a lot of lives, wouldn’t it? Also, if this isn’t too grand a word — our tragedy.”

The question of accumulation, Adrian had written……..You bet on a relationship. It fails. You go on to the next relationship, it fails too: and maybe what you lose is not two simple minus sums but the multiple of what you staked.”

“When you are in your twenties, even if you’re confused and uncertain about your aims and purposes, you have a strong sense of what life itself is, and of what you in life are, and might become. Later … later there is more uncertainty, more overlapping, more backtracking, more false memories. Back then, you can remember your short life in its entirety. Later, the memory becomes a thing of shreds and patches. It’s a bit like the black box airplanes carry to record what happens in a crash. So if you do crash, it’s obvious why you did; if you don’t, the log of your journey is much less clear.”

“Someone once said that his favorite times in history were when things were collapsing, because that means something new is being born. Does this make any sense if we apply it to our individual lives? Even if that something new is our very own self? Because just as all political and historical change sooner or later disappoints, so does adulthood. So does life. Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

“She was more smartly dressed this time; her hair was under control and seemed less grey. She somehow managed to look — to my eye — both twentyish and sixtyish at the same time.”

“I know this much: that there is objective time, but also subjective time, the kind you wear on the inside of your wrist, next to where the pulse lies. And this personal time, which is the true time, is measured in your relationship to memory. So when this strange thing happened – when these new memories suddenly came upon me – it was as if, for that moment, the time had been placed in reverse. As if, for that moment, the river runs upstream.”

“My philosopher friend (Adrian) who gazed on life and decided that any responsible, thinking individual should have the right to reject this gift that had never been asked for — and whose noble gesture re-emphasized with each passing decade the compromise and littleness that most lives consist of. ‘Most lives’: my life.”

“There is an accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.”

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Kindle version here