Fiction Addiction

Book news and reviews with Bronwyn Sell and Christine Sheehy

Fiction Addiction: The long and the (very) short of The Sense of an Ending

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There aren't enough hours in the day to read all the books on this list. Photo / Supplied
There aren't enough hours in the day to read all the books on this list. Photo / Supplied

I'm a bit of a classics junkie. I've been known to go for several years without reading a single new-release book. It's not unusual for me to have not even heard of the titles on the Booker Prize shortlist, let alone read them.

Getting up with the play on new literature was one of my motivations for starting this blog, even though I knew it would come at the expense of a few classics.

And, let's face it, just reading the classics is a race against time. I have the book 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, which starts at Aesop's Fables. The title is not as flippant as it might sound. If you read one of the 1001 books every month it would take more than 83 years to tick them all off - and then you'd have to catch up on all the "must-read" books published in the meantime.

But here's a trick to get you quickly schooled up on a bunch of classics and this year's Booker: the novella.

In the time it would take to read War and Peace, you could instead chalk up Heart of Darkness, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Of Mice and Men, Animal Farm, The Old Man and the Sea, Death in Venice, A Clockwork Orange, The Call of the Wild and The War of the Worlds (not strictly a novella but pretty short).

That would still leave you ample time to whiz through this year's leading contender for the Booker Prize, The Sense of an Ending, by British writer Julian Barnes. (Don't feel bad if you haven't heard of it - it was hurriedly released in New Zealand only a few weeks ago.)

The text in this blog entry would never cut it in a novella. I've taken far too long to get to the point, which is an update on the handbag-sized The Sense of an Ending, my feature read for this month.

After just an hour or so of leisurely reading I'm nearing the halfway mark of the 150 page book. The protagonist and narrator, retired civil servant Tony Webster, has caught us up with the relevant bits from the first 60 or so years of his life, and I sense things are about to get interesting. (The blurb on the back of the book promises that Webster's dully comfortable retired life gets shaken up by a letter from a lawyer.)

Part one of the book - and there are only two parts - focuses on two key relationships from Tony's late teens and early twenties.

The first is with Adrian Finn, a philosophical and precociously intelligent teenager who joins Tony's clique at school in London, and almost immediately becomes a revered figure among the group of friends. The second is with Veronica Ford, an enigmatic fellow university student in Bristol with whom Tony has an awkward relationship.

By the end of part one both relationships have ended - one sourly, the other tragically. I've peeked into the first few pages of part two and I know the lawyer's letter is about to arrive. I gather from the reviews I've read that the letter will throw into doubt Tony's recollections of his early adulthood.

Tony has already acknowledged that the version of his early life that he's recreating from a few scant memories is an unreliable one. The fallibility of the recollection and reconstruction of the past is a theme throughout the first part of the book. Says Adrian during school history class: "History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation."

When you're reading a book that contains an element of mystery, it can be frustrating knowing the author is going to hold out on giving you any answers until the end. With this book, I'm happy to note that whatever resolution Barnes will offer, he's going to do it in just another 90 pages. Ah the joy of a novella.

I'll review The Sense of an Ending at the end of the month. On Friday Christine will update you on her October feature read, The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje. Next week the Booker winner is announced, and we'll discuss your views on the prize. We've also got a Q&A coming up with Ondaatje.

To enter our competition to win a copy of The Sense of an Ending and The Cat's Table, click here and tell us whether competitions such as the Booker influence your reading choices, and why/why not. Entries close this Friday, 14 October.

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