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The Sense of an Ending, By Julian Barnes

A dark alley, just off Memory Lane

In these pages, I recently noted the return of the novella. Some of our greatest novelists have embraced the form, focusing their large talents on small works. Susan Hill regularly releases sharp ghoulish miniatures such as The Small Hand and The Man in the Picture and a few years ago Ian McEwan had considerable success with the diminutive On Chesil Beach. That book's inclusion on the Man Booker shortlist caused a stir that Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending, placed on this year's longlist, is set to replicate. The question remains: should novellas be judged alongside longer, multi-narrative fictions?

Barnes's 150-page tale concerns Tony Webster and his schoolfriends, who found their clique disrupted by newcomer Adrian Finn, a cleverer, more considered version of their pretentious selves. The group bathed in the glare of this bright star. Finn brought a spark to their middle-class, suburban version of the Sixties, in which the sexual revolution had yet to erupt behind the herbaceous borders and double glazing. "Most people didn't experience 'the Sixties' until the Seventies," notes Tony. "Which meant, logically, that most people in the Sixties were still experiencing the Fifties."

It's Tony's befuddled narrative that chronicles events, but he proves to be an unreliable narrator. Post-school days, Tony leaves for university and his first romance – with fellow undergraduate Veronica. Sexual frustration, class conflict and youthful insecurity ensue, especially when Veronica shifts her carnal allegiances to Adrian. Tony's subsequent years are relayed in whistle-stop fashion, and form a pretty dreary tick-list: dull administrative job, dull wife, even a dull divorce. Only four decades later does his story get a jolt, when an inheritance casts a new light on the past.

This book is something like a Ruth Rendell; confounding not just readers' suppositions but also those of the narrator. At the opening of the book, Tony confesses: "What you end up remembering isn't always the same as what you have witnessed." The result is adroit and unnerving and Barnes's keen intellect has rarely been so apparent. He, like his contemporaries, McEwan, Amis and Rushdie, is a gin-and-tonic novelist: his books are crisp, cool and provide a kick to the head, but they seldom, as is the case here, touch the heart. If that's the kind of tipple you enjoy, then The Sense of an Ending is a double on the rocks. Whether you consider that's enough to be a Man Booker contender remains, of course, open to debate.