This is a novel that came to me on the strength of recommendations from two sources (and that’s not even counting the Booker judges) but it was not recommended unreservedly by both parties. The matter upon which my acquaintances did, if to varying degrees, agree was a connection between Sense of an Ending and McEwan’s On Chesil Beach.
The novel is divided into two parts and the first is largely concerned with the sexual socio-history of the early sixties, as seen through the eyes of a young man we first meet at the onset of adolescence. There, straight away, is the obvious Chesil Beach connection, a similarity of setting and subject.
Having observed that Barnes’ depiction of sex between young people in unpromising circumstances rings instinctively true, where McEwan’s does not, I would have left it at that. (The sixties did not, our narrator insists, usher in immediate sexual freedom for the ragtag and bobtail.) But when Anthony, the young man mentioned above and also the first person narrator, begins to muse on the reasons for the sexual dissatisfaction he experiences with his first serious girlfriend, the parallel becomes more emphatic.
Anthony ultimately hits on the notion that there must be a darkness in her past, that she has suffered a wrong at the hands of brother or father. This is not a theory which is offered to the reader as anything more than a convenient get out to absolve a young man of personal responsibility for his own choices. It underlines my belief that the hinted sexual abuse in Chesil Beach is a convenience for the author which absolves him of the responsibility of really thinking about female sexuality.
But I don’t mean to suggest that Barnes was consciously gunning for McEwan. Having said that, the following phrase…
Besides, these girls were allowing far more than their mothers had, and I was getting far more than my father had done. At least, so I presumed.
…could be seen as sending up the author of Chesil Beach. Every generation would like to think that they invented sex, but seriously?
But that’s just my hobby-horse, and not strictly a theme of the novel. Thematically, Barnes is interested in history and memory. The ways in which these things are connected, how they are formed and to what extent each is mutable.
While the first part of the novel is a retrospective view of youth, the second part is the same retrospective but with the benefit of an artificially disturbed memory. A mysterious and unheralded development in the story introduces hard physical evidence through the agency of which the narrator is forced to reassess the veracity of his memory: and his motivations. The reason for the materialisation of the evidence stretched my credulity almost to the point of rupture, but given several enigmatic utterances, making perfect sense to the narrator but none to me, I will give the benefit of the doubt and lay the blame squarely on my own obtuseness.
The first part of the novel is well-paced and enjoyable reading. Although Tony is telling his story retrospectively Barnes lets him reinhabit his student mentality and the narrator’s choice of language reflects this balance between a reasoned recollection and the rawness of youth. It is, indeed, this combination of deliberate, reasoned reconstruction necessitated by the immediate, unreasoned responses of youth which leads to the discrepancy between perceived truth and documented truth.
The second part wobbles as Tony falls to navel gazing. His tone is less assured (which is apt) and the pace slackens, which may or may not be apt. Tony often observes that the rate of passage of time is quite independent of the tick of the second hand, and he also notes that time passes faster with advancing age. Not a phenomenon, unhappily, which is reflected in the writing.
As a meditation on memory the work would carry more conviction were the differential between history and memory more subtle, the divergences smoother. Although there are shadings of memory there are also jarring inconsistencies which smack more of an unreliable narrator than a nuanced memory. Memory is not so much reinterpreted as reinstated.
It is perhaps unfair, but I cannot help reflecting that memory has been done before and it has been done better.