Sifting through the mysteries of the distant past is a common enough fictional trope, yet the task is complicated if the sifter is a self-confessed coward who is not keen on learning too much. Tony Webster, the narrator of Julian Barnes' new novel, is frankly aware that he has never been adventurous or ambitious: "I had not wanted life to bother me too much."

A retiree now, he can synopsize his life in a few flat sentences: unexceptional career, friendly divorce, grown daughter, volunteer work. But these shreds of his life, he reminds us frequently, are not "the story."

Instead, "The Sense of an Ending" -- winner of this year's Man Booker Prize -- is a brilliant, understated examination of memory and how it works, how it compartmentalizes and fixes impressions to tidily store away. In Tony's words, his own memory is a "mechanism which reiterates apparently truthful data with little variation." "The story" itself concerns his memories of two remarkable people from his school days. Early in the novel we meet Adrian Finn, his Cambridge-bound friend, whose seriousness and intelligence excite Tony's admiration. When asked by his schoolmaster for a definition of history, Adrian quotes French historian Patrick Lagrange: "History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation," a murky and portentous formula that could serve as an outline for this novel.

That Adrian remains a bit mysterious, a bit aloof, gives him a mythic dimension in Tony's eyes through the decades that follow: "He was the truth-seeker and philosopher among us."

The other part of the story is Tony's college girlfriend, Veronica, whose unpredictable behavior seems to have at its center a contempt for Tony. A class thing? Tony doesn't know, but as he parts company with her, as his life settles into its banal groove, she too finds a place in his memory; she becomes "the Fruitcake."

The second, larger part of the novel rouses Tony from his retirement torpor and challenges his glib constructions of the past. An inexplicable legacy from Veronica's mother (it's been 40 years since he last saw Veronica) launches him on a quest that unsettles the calm routine of his world. Aging, this clever, provocative novel argues, is no "fixative"; rather, time acts as a "solvent," melting our certainties, forcing us to re-examine our acts and our beliefs if we've courage enough. And as Tony works towards an epiphany, Barnes reminds his readers how fragile is the tissue of impressions we conveniently rely upon as bedrock.

  • Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.