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By Julian Barnes. Knopf, $24.
One of humanity's easy assumptions, posits Julian Barnes's aging narrator, Tony Webster, in The Sense of an Ending, is "that memory equals event plus time." Then, he adds, "But it's all much odder than this." Webster has just shared a story from his past: A former classmate, Adrian, began dating one of Tony's ex-girlfriends, Veronica, and shortly thereafter killed himself. Webster recounts this because, in the present, he's been bequeathed a sum of money and the legal promise of Adrian's final journal, both of which were left to him in Veronica's mother's will.
Spurred to play the urban gumshoe, Webster plods off to uncover one of his life's unsolved mysteries; the past, of course, refuses to remain static. The circumstances surrounding his relationships with his erstwhile lover and friend are fluid and imprecise; more frightening is the unexpected fallout. And the very action of digging forces him to evaluate his own fragile illusions, which have been exposed in the commotion.
The stateside publication of The Sense of an Ending was rushed after it won the Man Booker Prize this fall. The author deserves it; the slender, 163-page volume is a finely wrought, succinct repudiation of the dim nostalgia and self-serving recriminations inevitably employed while combing through the perceived tragedies of one's past. Webster, ignorant but not a boor, justifies his ham-fisted investigation in a natural, sympathetic manner, but when the smoke clears, the criminals and crimes have disappeared. His questions, and the reader's own, remain.