In 1967 the great critic Frank Kermode - who died last year - published The Sense of an Ending: a series of lectures that not only mined the apocalyptic theme in art, but reviewed the ways in which fiction carves order and pattern out of the chaotic flux of time. The title of Julian Barnes's quietly mesmerising new novel – his 11th – not only serves as a veiled hommage from one masterly reader of fiction to another, but as a period allusion. Kermode's is just the sort of book, and thesis, that his show-off gang of chums ("of course we were pretentious – what else is youth for?") would have swapped during their close-knit student years.
Tony Webster, a retired cultural bureaucrat with an amiably divorced ex-wife and a distantly affectionate daughter, now looks back on the turning-points and forking paths of youth – first in comfort, and then with a distress that borders on panic as the time of his life unravels. He recalls a quartet of pals, suburban Sixties kids at a hothouse London school, destined to do better than their parents and so satisfy "the genteel social Darwinism of the English middle classes".
Yet, just as in Barnes's 1980 debut novel Metroland, that group soon resolves into a contrasting pair. "Peaceable" Tony will settle for "compromise and littleness" ("average at life; average at truth; morally average"). Adrian, his brilliant and rigorous antipode who practises "the application of thought to life", will shine in his studies, commit suicide as a postgrad, and 40 years on return to transfix, and derail, his friend's memories.
As Tony remembers, and revises, his youth, one event looms large: an excruciating stay with his first girlfriend, fellow undergraduate Veronica, at the Chislehurst home of her parents. The couple don't have "full sex" (the Sixties happened in the Sixties "only for some people"). Yet their spiky, sparring liaison, once fused with the simmering tensions of the family home, etches the weekend indeliby into the narrator's mind. Veronica will soon go off with smarter, deeper Adrian, and vanish from Tony's existence. Until, that is, her mother dies, Tony is bequeathed a shocking document, and his own sense of endings and beginnings loses its direction.
The novel shows "how time first grounds us and then confounds us", and that the twists of memory account for its unsettling "malleability". Early on, a sixth-form discussion of history ("the lies of the victors" or "the self-delusions of the defeated"?) ushers in the motif of self-excusing narrative as the pattern that we forge from life. A Home Counties Proust in a VW Polo, Tony dwells on the fluidity of time and memory. Barnes (an eminent Proustian himself) faces a challenge here. The first-person narration has to conform to the limits of Tony's decent but - as he knows - hardly Adrian-level intellect. Mostly Barnes succeeds, although a key image of the Severn Bore – that tidal anomaly in which "nature was reversed, and time with it" – seems to bear the author's more than the narrator's stamp.
A slow burn, measured but suspenseful, this compact novel makes every slyly crafted sentence count. In the finale it catches fire, as Tony's discovery of the non-negotiable truth about his past brings a harrowing immediacy to intuitions of "damage a long way back" (a half-quotation from Philip Larkin's poem, "Love Again"). They may unfold in a convenience store and a would-be gastropub serving factory-processed "hand-cut chips" near the North Circular Road, but the concluding scenes grip like a thriller – a whodunnit of memory and morality, and one which detonates a minor, private apocalypse.
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