The Booker Prize has always enjoyed controversy and acclaim, making it the most (in)famous modern prize in British literature. People bet heavily on the results and the analysis of the shortlist (‘Why wasn’t insert any author’s name here on it?’) generates endless discussion in newspapers and online. This year, a group of authors has even vowed to set up a rival prize to the Booker in 2012, so that the ‘best’ literary novel of the year really will win.
The winner in 2011 turned out to be Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. It’s almost a novella, a slim book of 150 pages, the second-shortest novel to win the Booker Prize. And it’s terrific. The controversy this year was over the Booker judges’ criterion of ‘readability‘; many critics claimed that this was too ‘populist’, an insult to the ‘true’ goal of ‘artistic achievement.’ But The Sense of an Ending is a readable novel that tells an intriguing story, with well-developed characters, challenging themes and a thoughtful use of language. Read it for yourself and see what you think: my opinion is that Barnes’ meditation on memory and experience, life as it is lived and life as we choose to remember it, is well worth reading.
The protagonist, Tony Webster, is ‘a bald man in his sixties’: retired, divorced and contentedly living alone. He seems to feel that his life is over – he’s made his will, tidied his flat and drifts from day to day in a series of undemanding activities: ‘I mowed my lawn, I took holidays, I had my life.’ He believes that he has lived an ordinary and uneventful life, without drama, doing no harm to anyone. Then he receives an unexpected letter from a lawyer, and all of his assumptions about his calm, ordinary life are shattered.