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• Thursday, May 26th, 2016

Julian Barnes was born in Leicester, England in 1946 from parents both of whom were French teachers. A few weeks after his birth his family moved to the outer suburbs of London. He went to the City of London School from 1957 to 1964 followed by four years at Magdalen College, Oxford where he studied modern languages and graduated with honours in 1968.

He then worked for three years as a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary supplement, followed by a career as a journalist, a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement. In 1977 Barnes worked as a reviewer and literary editor for the New Statesman and the New Review and from 1979 to 1986 he was an assistant literary editor and television critic for the New Statesman magazine followed by the Observer newspaper. He was London correspondent for the New Yorker magazine from 1990 to 1995.

Julian Barnes currently lives in London and has written several novels, short stories and essays. In the nineteen eighties he also wrote crime fiction novels under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh. Kavanagh being the surname of his late, literary agent’s wife, Patricia Kavanagh. Julian Barnes has received numerous notable awards, prizes and honours for his work which have been translated into several languages. The Sense Of An Ending is Barnes’ fourteenth novel and it won the Man Booker Prize For Fiction in 2011.

Tony Webster, the narrator in The Sense Of An Ending, has a weak, passive character. He is a retired Englishman in his sixties who lives alone in a London suburb. He goes from a dull, uneventful, quiet life, to a dull married life, a daughter, followed by an uneventful divorce. He once said: “I had wanted life not to bother me too much and succeeded”. He “neither won nor lost, but just let life happen to him… avoided being hurt and called it a capacity for survival”.

The Sense Of An Ending is divided into two parts. In the first, Tony is reminiscing about his college and university years. The second part starts with the arrival of an unexpected letter from a lawyer carrying a strange, baffling will with a bequest of £500 as well as the diary of his departed bright, close school friend that he always looked up to – Adrian Finn. This was all from the estate of Mrs Sarah Ford, the recently deceased mother of his former manipulative and whimsical college girlfriend, Veronica Ford.

Tony has only once met Mrs Sarah Ford, forty years ago when Veronica invited him to spend the weekend at her family’s house in Kent, which ended up being an unpleasant experience. After her mother’s death,Veronica took Adrian Finn’s diary and refused to give it to Tony. Tony is intrigued by the whole affair which pushes him to put all his effort into an attempt to unfold the mystery of this bizarre bequest and the enigma behind Adrian’s suicide.

The matter requires Tony’s eager, intensive investigation. For the first time he will try to make sense of a life he constantly kept afar and to understand why he “still doesn’t get it and never did” as Veronica keeps repeating to him.

After forty years, hidden memories from the distant nineteen sixties resurface. Tony now has time to reflect upon his high school days, his close cliques of school friends – Alexander, Colin and Adrian – and what has become of them after their graduation and after each one went his separate way. The author warns us in the first page of his novel that: “what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed”, because time has the power to deform memories, falsely, into certainties. People prefer to conveniently modify the past to be able to live comfortably with themselves and in order to accommodate the requirements of the current time.

After Tony’s great perseverance, the mystery he was seeking is unravelled with an unexpected twist and will lead to an overwhelming, heartbreaking truth to justify why the ending make sense. A very subtle master stroke by the author.

Throughout the novel, Julian Barnes is sparing with his information – he presents it with many options, varies the angles without disclosing anything, keeping the suspense and the ambiguity in order to reveal an unexpected denouement which clarifies everything at the end.

The Sense Of An Ending is skilfully written and plotted, some parts are tinged with dry English sense of humour. It is the story of a man rediscovering himself while coming to terms with his past “deformed” memories and making sense of perplexing matters. Although a short novel, it is alluring in a philosophical as well as psychological way and a thought-provoker.

A sombre, disturbing insight on ageing and its weaknesses. The novel is dense with reflections and contains several themes like ageing, the passing of time and its effects, the fickleness of memory, the reshaping of the past, remorse, regrets over missed opportunities and how life can guide a person to a different path from the expected one.

In his young days, Tony and his friends “imagined themselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to be released into their lives”. Tony Webster will never attain the expected life he wished to have in his adulthood – a life of “passion and danger, ecstasy and despair”. Instead he will come to the conclusion that life has many responsibilities, but most of all is full of considerable “unrest…great unrest”. As the French proverb goes: “Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait”,“If the young only knew and the old only could”.

 
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Category: Book Reviews  | One Comment
Author:
• Sunday, March 24th, 2013

Alistair MacLeod was born in 1936 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Canada. When Alistair MacLeod was ten his family moved to a farm in Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island and after high school, he studied at St. Francis Xavier University, graduating with BA and B.Ed. degrees. In 1961 he obtained an MA degree from the University of New Brunswick and in 1968 a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame.

He taught English for three years at Indiana University followed by a post at the University of Windsor, Ontario in 1969 as a professor of English and Creative Writing. Alistair MacLeod is a father of six children. He is retired and lives with his wife in Windsor, Ontario and they spend their summers on Cape Breton Island.

MacLeod has written a number of short stories: The lost Salt Gift of Blood, published in 1976 and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories in 1986. All his short stories have been collected into a single volume entitled Island: the Collected Stories of Alistair MacLeod.

He has also written novels: No Great Mischief, his first novel, which took him thirteen years to write, was published in 1999 and received several awards and nominations. To Every Thing There is a Season was published in 2004 and Never Die Wondering in 2009. In 2008, Alistair MacLeod received the insignia as an officer of the Order of Canada for all his work.

No Great Mischief recounts the saga of the Scottish Highlanders, the clan MacDonald. In 1779, at the age of 55, Calum Ruadh (Calum the Red) MacDonald leaves his native Scotland with his large family – his wife, his twelve children and his dog – in an attempt to escape poverty and try his luck in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia in Canada.

Two centuries later, in 1980 in Ontario, Alexander MacDonald, the narrator, is a successful orthodontist. At the age of three he was raised with his twin sister by their grandparents, while his three elder brothers were left to raise themselves following their parents’ drowning with 11 year old brother Colin, on a treacherous frozen sea in early spring. The novel starts with Alexander MacDonald going for his weekly visit to his broken-down, impoverished, alcoholic, elder brother, Calum, who lives in a run-down part of Toronto.

Alexander MacDonald is the great, great, great grand-child of Calum Ruadh MacDonald and one of the three cousins, called Alexander MacDonald in the novel. He evokes his clan’s stories, past and present, with its sad and tragic but also hopeful and joyful moments. The author mentions great battles like, Glencoe, Killiecrankie and Culloden in addition to other important events in Scottish history, as well as old traditional Highlanders’ Celtic songs. These stories have been passed on from generation to generation as part of their Scottish heritage, ensuring they are never forgotten but at the same time not forgetting that “living in the past is not living up to (one’s) potential”.

In the past the MacDonald clan faced hardship in their native land. Now exiled in Canada, the adversities continue, which make them resigned to their fate. They believe very strongly in keeping their identity and their dignity, while remaining loyal to their families, clans, countrymen and by following the old saying that “blood is thicker than water”. The credos they value are also: “We are all better when we’re loved” and Robert the Bruce’s quote from 1314: “My hope is constant in thee, clan Donald”. The MacDonald’s clan fought alongside Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn.

The author underlines that even the MacDonald’s dogs and horses are faithful to them, like the members of the clan are loyal to each other. They kept the same family of dogs over the centuries. As Grandpa said after the death of their devoted dog: “ She was descended from the original Calum Ruadh dog… It was in those dogs to care too much and to try too hard” and Calum’s trustworthy horse, Christy, who “always kept her part of the bargain”.

The novel’s title refers to a letter written by General James Wolfe who describes in a disdainful way the Highlanders who were fighting under his command on the Plains of Abraham, outside Quebec city in 1759. He writes: “They are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country and no great mischief if they fall”. The General “was furious at the Highlanders because they wouldn’t retreat until they had carried their own wounded from the field” despite being ordered to leave them on the battle ground. They braved the enemy’s fire and disobeyed the order of the General because “they were probably fighting with their hearts rather than their heads”.

No Great Mischief is an elaborate touching story, emotionally strong, interspersed by ancient Celtic myths and anecdotes. The main themes are: the exile and the attachment that exists between the man and his own land, family blood ties, loyalty and dignity, going through several generations.

A poignant and tragic account at times, hilarious and light hearted at others. Beautifully written with well developed characters – grandpa and grandma being particularly endearing. It’s an authentic, heartfelt depiction of the belonging, allegiance and expectations of the exiled Scots from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where MacLeod, himself was raised in Scottish surroundings with an oral rich tradition. The detailed description of the landscapes and especially the ocean, which is often described in various part of the story, enhances the account of this enticing novel.