Bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door: a BBCE debrief

Last night, the formidable BBCE met to discuss the 2011 Man Booker Prize winning novel (novella?), The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.

I’m going to assume that many of our faithful followers here on 50pagesadayforayear have read this amazing book. I make this assumption because it took me multiple trips to 3 distinct Book City locations to find a copy. I’m so glad I finally did.

The story is split into two distinct parts, narrated, somewhat unreliably by Tony, a bald Brit well into his sixties. Unreliable because the flickers of poignant self-reflection seem at odds with the obtuse, and somewhat pathetic nature of his self-described character.

Part One is Tony’s account his formative years, which he never really lives up to. We meet his gang of four school friends, described as ‘sex-hungry, meritocratic and anarchistic’, including Adrian, the ill fated-intellect of the bunch. Tony goes off to read history at Bristol where he meets Veronica. He indulges us in a rather painful account of their virtually sexless relationship including a tortuous weekend with her posh family.

Amy has already noted the similarities between Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes in an earlier post. More common ground it seems, as I couldn’t agree more. They both have amazing talent for building tension without relying on narrative, so that you almost feel like you’re having a premonition. I can’t imagine how difficult that must be. If you want a good example of what I mean, you have to read Saturday pronto.

And they both expertly infuse shock into otherwise banal or proper settings. In Atonement, when Robbie types his letter to Cecilia and drops the c-word, you’re not ready for it. It’s just suddenly there to catch you off-guard.

In The Sense of an Ending, it’s Tony tossing off in the basin in the guestroom of Veronica’s childhood home, undoubtedly with her parents nearby. I couldn’t help but get a little scandalized by it, despite being warned about the ‘gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house’ on page 1.

In Part 2 of the story, Tony is his older self, forced by circumstance to revisit his relationship with Veronica and his weekend with her family. I won’t go into detail since you didn’t come here to read a book report after all. But it was this older version of Tony that exasperated the BBCE.

We were impatient with him. Specifically, with his lack of empathy and self-awareness. He reflects temporarily on the suicide of Adrian, but doesn’t despair over it. He’s unsentimental about the loss of the friendships that once defined him. Though his wife Margaret left him for another man, he describes their divorce as calm. He hasn’t invested enough in anyone to have a spirited departure. Or so he thinks. Until a letter from his past proves him wrong.

It’s here that Julian (if I may) releases the themes that make this book so haunting:

Can you ever see yourself objectively?

Is it possible to know how your actions impact others?

Can moments that have the power to alter the course of lives come and go without anyone recognizing their significance?

Are memories real or constructed?

We chewed on it last night. Along with some delicious salami. We’ve really come into our own.

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1 Response to Bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door: a BBCE debrief

  1. Katie says:

    Fab review Leighanne. Loved the book. Great list of big questions. I’ll pass it along to my book club.

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