This has to be one of the saddest books I have ever read, It is an attack on the smugness of youth and the complacency of old age. It is a warning that our early actions can come back to haunt us. Cliches are after all founded on truth.
It is the story of a man, Tony Webster, who is comfortably retired, amicably divorced with one safely married daughter, who takes pleasure in history and music, keeping his apartment well maintained and volunteering in the local hospital library once a week. His only close friend appears to be his divorced wife but he seems perfectly content with this. Though he admits to moments of self-pity, he thinks that 'we end up all belonging to the same category, that of the non-young' and claims 'I've never much minded this myself'. He says that 'I rarely ended up fantasising a markedly different life from the one that has been mine'. He is not odd enough not to have done the things he ended up doing with his life and he neither looks back or obsesses about death. Though Barnes has written on death, this novel is not about death though three deaths occur and it is the third of these that leads to a cataclysmic result for Tony.
The novel is divided into two parts. In the first part, Webster is a callow sixth-former, one of a trio who draw into their clique a new-comer, the intellectual and clever Adrian Finn. They were - as Tony at age 65 remembers - 'book-hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, anarchistic. All political and social systems appeared to us corrupt, yet we declined to consider an alternative other than hedonistic chaos'. In other words, they were the pretentious children of the sixties with a fear that life wouldn't turn out to be like literature and, as Barnes writes, 'most people didn't experience the Sixties until the Seventies'. The group splits up when school ends and they go their separate ways, Tony to university in Bristol and Adrian to Cambridge. At Bristol, Tony gets into a relationship, fraught at times, with Veronica Ford, a wayward and opinionated young woman. When Tony takes her to London to meet with his friends, Veronica is clearly taken with Adrian who is fulfilling his early promise successfully in Cambridge. Tony's relationship with Veronica does not last his time in Bristol but its effects and reverberations are to impinge greatly on his life.
In the second part, Webster is now 65 and retired when an extraordinary event catapults Veronica back into his life. He receives a lawyer's letter regarding a small bequest which becomes the source of agonizing memory searches and a re-evaluation of his entire life.
It is hard to believe that this small book is only 150 pages long so replete is it with ideas, philosophy and subtle - and not so subtle - aphorisms. Barnes has excelled himself with this one. One critic has compared it with Chesil Beach where the backgrounds and characters are not dissimilar but perhaps it would be truer to say that this is the book that McEwan would like to have written. The main character, Tony Webster, is beautifully drawn. Barnes develops Tony's character with deftness so we are remarkedly at ease with the accumulation of events in his life and his thought processes. Though this book, as I said, is not about death but about life, I can't do better than quote John Self who said, in his review of the book, 'Death, getting close every day, is always personal. In Frank Kermode’s work of literary criticism from which Barnes takes his title, “the sense of an ending” refers to apocalypticism, the end of the world. Barnes’s concern here is far more serious than that'.