The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes (2011)
Grad school and my own reading have taught me never to propel a reader’s interest through secret-keeping, not if you want to write a literary novel. The literary novel is meant to reveal its secrets early on; the readerly (and writerly) interest lies in the complexities of dealing with that secret. Barnes breaks that rule here, and it does make for more plot-based heart-thumping than I expected from a novel literary enough to win a Booker.
A master class in:
Dramatic irony. The element of the book that most interested me was Tony’s relationship with his ex-wife, Margaret: the reader’s sense that she still loves him far more deeply than he knows or is willing to tell or acknowledge.
In fact, this book is all about the power of the first-person to reveal or conceal important information. Early on, in the middle of a paragraph, Tony tells us that his letter to Adrian and Veronica “told him pretty much what I thought of their joint moral scruples”–a mild, if mildly incensed, description. Much later, we find out that the none-so-mild letter actually began: “Dear Adrian–or rather, Dear Adrian and Veronica (hello, Bitch, and welcome to this letter),” and followed tonally from there.
I sometimes feel limited by the first-person perspective in my stories, because I can’t reveal information the narrator doesn’t know without making the narrator appear stupid for not knowing it. (This is my main problem with The Hunger Games series, and why the internal-monologue-less movies are better than the books.) But Barnes here is showing there’s a power in letting the narrator know a great deal, and strategically doling out that information to the reader. Much like Ishiguro’s narrative restraint (he called it “emotional frostiness”) in a personal favorite, The Remains of the Day.
The Margaret scenes. Here’s one:
She leant across and patted my hand. “It’s nice that we’re still fond of one another. And it’s nice that I know you’ll never get around to booking that holiday.”
“Only because I know you don’t mean it.”
She smiled. And for a moment, she almost looked enigmatic. But Margaret can’t do enigma[…] If she’d wanted me to spend the money on a holiday for two, she’d have said so. Yes, I realise that’s exactly what she did say, but…