If anyone who represents himself in court has a fool for a client, it follows that anyone who tries to tell his own life story has a liar for a biographer.
That's the conclusion, anyway, of the meditative, rueful The Sense of an Ending, which landed its author Julian Barnes on the short list for the Britain's Man Booker Prize (to be announced Oct. 18) for the fourth time,
Like Madeleine of "The Marriage Plot," Tony Webster and his friends were afraid “that Life wouldn't turn out to be like Literature.” (The terror of all bookworms.) The most gifted member of their crew, Adrian Finn, commits suicide in college, which his friends regard as his philosophical rejection of the world. Tony, less brilliant, shuffles along in arts administration, marries, has a daughter, and divorces amicably. Now retired, he volunteers as a hospital librarian a few days a week and enjoys his “peaceable” existence. (Of the Shakespearean consolation about those who die young, “They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old,” Tony says, “Most of the rest of us haven't minded growing old. It's always better than the alternative in my book.”)
Then he gets a strange bequest. A woman he only met once, the mother of an ex-girlfriend with whom Tony had a frustrated relationship in college, has died and left him Adrian's diary and £500. Tony is at first bemused: how on earth did she end up with Adrian's diary? His ex-girlfriend, Veronica Ford, dated Adrian after Tony, so he presumes that's the link. Veronica, meanwhile, does not remember Tony fondly, and refuses to give him anything except one partial entry and a letter Tony wrote Adrian before his death.
Tony campaigns to persuade Veronica to give him Adrian's book, while he begins searching his memory for clues to see if he is somehow culpable in his friend's death. The problem is that his 40-year-old memories aren't exactly the greatest witnesses for the defense, and he finds he had been living out Adrian's favorite quote about history: “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
The problem for Tony is that the more he tries to remember, the less certain he is of anything: "As the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been."
As more memories come bubbling up, how trustworthy are they? Tony warns over and over that he is an unreliable narrator. “Again, I must stress that this is my reading now of my what happened then. Or rather, my memory now of my reading then of what was happening at the time.”
As unearthed facts cause Tony to rewrite everything he has always known about his friend, his self-satisfaction at his orderly existence changes to a kind of worried humility. When looking back at a long life, he suggests, there should be no sense of triumph. Instead, “You are allowed a long moment of pause, time enough to ask the question: what else have I done wrong?”