Julian Barnes explores memory, loss, and lives built around the empty spaces in his Booker-winning novel, The Sense of an Ending. Ostensibly the reminiscence of the recently retired and contentedly divorced Tony Webster, the story deepens to tragedy when Tony reconnects with his college girlfriend and re-examines what he thinks he remembers about his past.
As Tony bit-by-bit abandons his understanding of passed events, he gives up the assumption that “memory equals events plus time” and realizes that “time doesn't act as a fixative, rather as a solvent.”
This scrutiny of memory makes the novel reverberate. Because I try cases on behalf of adults who were abused when they were children, I deal daily with imperfect memories, forgotten details, and re-created stories as my clients and the people we sue patch together their history. I’ve learned that truth – or as close as we can get – is three-dimensional and can be built only collaboratively.
Or, as Tony muses:
[A]s the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been. Even if you have assiduously kept records – in words, sound, pictures – you may find that you have attended to the wrong kind of record-keeping. What was the line Adrian used to quote? “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
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The Sense of an Ending deservedly won the 2011 Booker Prize.