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Reflections In Twilight

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Practically at the heart of The Sense Of An Ending, the protagonist, Tony Webster while reflecting upon his life says that "when you are young, you think you can predict the likely pains and bleakness that age might bring. You imagine yourself being lonely, divorced, widowed; children growing away from you, friends dying. ….What you fail to do is look ahead, and then imagine yourself looking back from that future point." As often has he tried, "which wasn't very hard – I rarely ended up fantasizing a markedly different life from the one that has been mine. I don't think this is complacency; it's more likely a lack of imagination, or ambition, or something."

Tony Webster and his clique consisting of Colin and Alex, meet Adrian Finn whilst in school. Theirs was an ordinary, run-of-the-mill group of adolescents who were "book-hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, and anarchistic." Adrian Finn, on the other hand, was "a tall, shy boy who initially kept his eyes down and his mind to himself," who was immensely talented in sports, debating, studies, and music. "For the first day or two, we took little notice of him: at our school there was no welcoming ceremony, let alone its opposite, the punitive induction. We just registered his presence and waited." But as Tony emphasises on the opening page of the novel that "…what you end up remembering isn't always the same as what you have witnessed." Upon graduation, they drift in different directions, but do meet occasionally, including the memorable day when Tony introduces his girlfriend, Veronica, to the others. Later she dumps Tony for Adrian, but after the latter's death she disappears from their social circle. It is only much later, when Tony is divorced and retired, he receives a tiny legacy in Veronica's mother's will after which he attempts to locate his ex-girlfriend. This phone call from the solicitor informing him, triggers off an avalanche of memories.

Like Stephen Dedalus, a couple of literary generations before him, Tony and his friends "knew from our reading of great literature that Love involved Suffering, and would happily have got in some practice at Suffering if there was an implicit, perhaps even logical, promise that Love might be on its way. That was another of our fears: that Life wouldn't turn out to be like Literature. Look at our parents — were they the stuff of Literature? At best, they might aspire to the condition of onlookers and bystanders, part of a social backdrop against which real, true, important things could happen. Like what? The things Literature was all about: love, sex, morality, friendship, happiness, suffering, betrayal, adultery, good and evil, heroes and villains, guilt and innocence, ambition, power, justice, revolution, war, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, the individual against society, success and failure, murder, suicide, death, God. And barn owls. Of course, there are other sorts of literature — theoretical, self-referential, lachrymosely autobiographical – but they were just dry wanks. Real literature was about psychological, emotional and social truth as demonstrated by the actions and reflections of its protagonists; the novel was about character developed over time. That's what Phil Dixon had told us anyway. And the only person — apart from Robson, whose life so far contained anything remotely novel — worth was Adrian." Fortunately for Tony his moment of epiphany came early on in life and he was not at all disappointed in the manner in which he had lived his life. "When we're young, everyone over the age of thirty looks middle-aged, everyone over fifty antique. And time, as it goes by, confirms that we weren't that wrong. Those little age differentials, so crucial and so gross when we are young, erode. We end up all belonging to the same category, that of the non-young. I've never much minded this myself." Upon receiving the legacy, he resolves to make suitable amends or to find an end to past events that he now regretted, only to discover that it is impossible.

Today, most literary fiction is dominated with the preoccupation of middle age or a rant about the young adult years, but how many actually discuss the twilight years. The reflection upon the past, the entire life cycle that has taken its toll on the person? Who has not often thought of the question: What if? What if we turned back the clock, what would happen? But even if we were unable to, can we actually make amends? Is it still possible? The Sense Of In Ending attempts to address some of these questions. It is a delicious mix between coming-of-age fiction and reflection upon the past, from a senior citizen's point of view, having neatly and efficiently done away with the working years of an adult. The Booker Prize judges made an excellent decision by selecting Julian Barnes as this year's winner.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is a publishing consultant and critic