Julian Barnes' Booker-winning novel is a brilliant investigation into the nature of memory.

When Julian Barnes snagged the Man Booker Prize 2011 for The Sense of an Ending, it had the sense of an anticlimactic ending to this year's brouhaha over the Booker lists. The main accusation, after all, was that the judges — especially the chair, former MI5 director general Stella Rimington — had favoured readability over top quality writing. But Barnes' winning book was widely held to be both superbly written and an absorbing read.

Not that all rumblings were silenced when the victor was Barnes, fourth time lucky at the Booker; his book at some 150 pages is very short, and grievances were aired about it being a novella rather than a novel. But length is irrelevant when judging Barnes' 11th novel, a brilliant investigation into the nature of memory, what we remember, and what we forget.

A play staged in town earlier this year, The Blue Mug, explored the notion that we are the sum of our memories; lose them, and we lose our core identity. Barnes's elegant, if disturbing, novel plays with the same supposition: that we construct our sense of self from what we recall of events, places and people - and our reactions to them.

We believe what we remember is true, because it defines the essence of who we are. But, enquires Barnes, what if our memories aren't entirely accurate? What if we have chosen, consciously or unconsciously, to elide over the uncomfortable ones? If the veracity of our memories is brutally threatened, by extension, will our sense of self unravel as well?

Odd choice

Barnes tests these ideas via his middle-aged protagonist Tony Webster, a retired arts administrator. It initially seems an odd choice of narrator, for Tony has apparently led an entirely unremarkable life, peppered with conventionally dull ups and downs – a peaceable marriage followed by a peaceable divorce, a well-settled daughter, and the prospect of a reasonably secure old age.

The clues to Tony's more problematic side lie in his boyhood memories of growing up in the early 1960s in suburban London, as part of a trio of “book-hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, anarchistic” friends. “Of course we were pretentious,” Tony says, “what else is youth for?” The group was later joined by newcomer Adrian Finn, intellectually far superior, and seemingly designed for greatness. There are also memories of awkward adolescence and a painful, failed relationship with the sophisticated Veronica. There is, in particular, a sense of unease that lingers in Tony's mind about a weekend spent at Veronica's parents' home, for reasons he can't quite define. But Veronica's essence remains steadfastly opaque to Tony; eventually she dates and marries Adrian – old history, when the book opens.

History, Adrian once says in the boys' history class, “is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation”. Which, moving from the macro to the micro, is how Tony has constructed the history of his life, from memories he is largely comfortable with, and a past he has sorted out, with seemingly no skeletons in the proverbial cupboard.

Twists and turns

It's a construct that Tony is forced to re-examine when a solicitor's letter arrives, informing him of a strange bequest of money from Veronica's mother whom he met just the one time, and a set of diaries. Determined to make sense of this unsettling turn of events, Tony engineers a reconnection with Veronica who remains as incomprehensible to him as before. A cat and mouse game ensues, and with every twist and turn, the ambiguities deepen. As the novel unfolds, our narrator is undoubtedly seen to be sincere; but is he entirely trustworthy?

Barnes's prose is spare, yet rich in ideas, and beautifully crafted to reveal unusual depths. His elegant minimalism is a pleasure to read, particularly since it's a style that's not much seen at a time when opaque literary prose, colourful generational sagas, or even epic retellings of history are all the rage.

Unexpectedly, for me, reading The Sense of an Ending was also like reading a slowburn thriller where you simply had to get to the end to solve to the novel's mysteries. “You just don't get it,” is Veronica's angry refrain as her former lover stumbles about, trying to make sense of the past. We don't understand either, but the answers, when they come, are written with a subtle precision that carries, as well, all the force of an unexpected gunshot.

Also, despite “readable” becoming a highly contested word by the end of this year's Booker saga, I have to agree with Rimington's comment that Barnes' Booker-winning novel is “a very readable book” and “readable not only once but twice and even three times. It is incredibly concentrated. Crammed into this short space is a great deal of information which you don't get out of a first read.” Rimington added, with justification, that Barnes' novel had “the markings of a classic of English Literature”. The unreliability of memory aside, this is a novel that's worth keeping in our memories, individual and collective, for a long, long time.

The Sense of an Ending; Julian Barnes, Random House, Rs. 599.

More In: Books