The Sense of Ending: in praise of the concise novel

51hhJ8IdqyLDisappearing into Julian Barnes’s 2011 Booker prize-winning novel, The Sense of an Ending was so pleasurable an experience that I read his short 163 page novella twice.

This is rare for me. I don’t read many books more than once. They have to really intrigue and beguile me to encourage a second reading.

So I can add The Sense of An Ending to a narrow list of twice or even thrice-read books that includes JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, the George Orwell novels Coming up for Air, 1984 and Keep the Aspidistra Flying and E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India.

In each book, I found a central character whose view of the world I identified with, or with whom I made a connection in some meaningful way, or whose life I wanted to step into, even for just a little while: a chance to be angst-ridden teenage rebel and narrator of Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield wondering the streets of Manhattan, having conversations with nuns and prostitutes, or rotund London insurance salesman George Bowling in Coming up for Air who escapes to the country town of his youth, before the bombs of WW2 fall, or idealistic, starving and self-destructive poet, Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

In The Sense of an Ending I instantly liked and identified with Tony Webster, the 60-year-old divorced former arts administrator who has succeeded in living a life of little bother or regret, who does not fantasise “a markedly different life from the one that has been mine”.

Webster has accepted a modestly successful and peacable existence in a small London flat with his affairs neatly in order. He’s even on good terms with his ex-wife Margaret.

I’ve made my will; and my dealings with daughter, son-in-law, grandchildren and ex-wife, are, if less than perfect, at least settled. Or as I have persuaded myself. I’ve achieved a state of peaceableness or peacefulness. Because I get on with things. I don’t like mess and I don’t like leaving a mess.

But then he is forced to re-evaluate things – love, friendship, memory, the decisions he made and their consequences – when he receives an unexpected bequest from a woman he’d met only once, 40 years earlier.

She is Sarah Ford, the recently deceased mother of his college girlfriend, Veronica, who has bequeathed him £500 as well as the diary of his erudite, brilliant school friend, Adrian Finn, who committed suicide while at college and whose passing was described in the Cambridge Evening News under the headline: “Tragic Death of Promising Young Man”.

Adrian dated Veronica soon after Tony’s relationship with her ended. Having parted ways angrily via a dreadful, hurtful letter Tony, went travelling and in the days before email and mobile phones, only found out about his friends death many weeks later, when he returned home.

Tony’s mother wonders if Adrian killed himself “because he was too clever”. Tony comes to the conclusion that Adrian, who had great powers of reason and an amazing intellect, had come to the logical conclusion that he should end his life.

But then comes the promise of the diary, a way into his deceased friend’s mind and for Tony, who doesn’t like loose ends, the prospect of a definitive answer: a way to make sense of Adrian’s ending.

The only problem is his still very angry ex-girlfriend Veronica: she has the diary and won’t give it to him.

Instead she feeds him an extract with a complex maths equation that Tony must unravel.

In doing so he confronts his own decision to accept the path of an uneventful, non-confrontational life with no loose ends or complications, he begins to unravel the mystery of himself.

If this doesn’t quite explain why I like Tony so much (people who know me might say he and I have a lot in common)  then I think this observation in a review of the book in the New York Times explains it rather well:

Barnes’s unreliable narrator is a mystery to himself, which makes the novel one unbroken, sizzling, satisfying fuse. Its puzzle of past causes is decoded by a man who is himself a puzzle.

Advertisements

Chasing Peta: A review of Niki Savva’s book: The Road to Ruin

road to ruin coverThe abiding image, the one that sticks doggedly in my mind having read Niki Savva‘s book The Road to Ruin, about the rise and swift fall of the Abbott Government, is of the then prime minister racing down the corridors of Parliament House in Canberra, chasing after a fuming or teary-eyed Peta Credlin, his chief of staff.

Abbott would invariably catch up with Credlin, console her and then bring her back – with great reluctance on her part – to the meeting room, where whoever had offended her (no matter if they were a cabinet minister or senior staffer) would offer a grovelling apology: “Sorry Peta.”

It’s a recurring theme in the book. Savva, a conservative no less, paints a picture of a well-intentioned (from a Liberal voter’s point of view) prime minister, who was seemingly under the spell of this power-hungry, emotionally volatile and unpredictable woman (Credlin would verbally abuse staff, then bring in a cake the next day) and how their bizarre co-dependent relationship brought down the Abbott government in September last year, after less than two years in power.

It’s a thoroughly engrossing book, indeed a page turner which is no mean feat for a book about politics. Savva, a well-regarded columnist for The Australian newspaper draws on all her vast experience in the Canberra press gallery plus her deep knowledge of the Australian political machine (she was a media adviser to former Treasurer Peter Costello) to weave a fascinating tale of ego, stupidity and ignorance that never strays too far into the banal details of bureaucratic government process.

Across 300 odd pages, it reveals just how poorly suited  Abbott and Credlin were to their respective jobs of PM and chief of staff. Both were brilliant in opposition, hammering away at the dysfunctional Labor government of the Rudd and Gillard years, but in office Savva shows how utterly hopeless they were from the very beginning – Abbott with his dreadful captain’s picks, poor choice of ministers, unwillingness to drop poor policies and inability to read the tea leaves and Credlin with her micro-management, dragon-like temper and deliberate sabotage of the good intentions of those who sought to help Abbott save his government.

Right up to a few weeks before Abbott and Credlin both lost their jobs, the chief of staff – not the prime minister’s wife – was still immersed in choosing the decor for the refurbished lodge….a week out [Credlin] was obsessing about artwork, burying herself in trivia…their lack of preparation on that fateful night would astound even their allies

There were numerous warning signs for Abbott – all of which he ignored or dismissed – foolishly believing that the Liberal Party was not Labor, and would never turf a Coalition Prime Minister out of office, certainly not in his first term after such a resounding electoral victory.

As for Credlin, she seemed to believe her own legend of an invincible, warrior, shielding Abbott from his foes. So much in fact that as Savva reveals, Credlin framed a caricature of herself drawn by The Australian‘s Eric Lobbecke depicting her as just such a sword-wielding warrior (with Abbott hiding behind  her) and hung it in her office.

083887-eric-lobbecke

The Eric Lobbecke cartoon

These sorts of astonishing details and anecdotes pepper The Road to Ruin. They have the effect of taking the reader inside parliament or the party room or the restaurants where Abbott and Credlin dined, including that cringeworthy famous account of how Credlin fed Abbott from her own fork, just one of many similar incidents that sparked rumours of an affair (dismissed by both of them) but which more imporantly framed the bizarre nature of their relationship.

Also particularly enjoyable are Savva’s own stoushes with Credlin over the things she wrote in her column in The Australian, which put a spotlight on all the bad decisions. Savva would receive spiteful, threatening text messages and on a number of occasions pressure would be applied to the newspaper’s then editor, Chris Mitchell to sack her. Mitchell stood firmly by his star writer, to the huge frustration of Credlin and Abbott who must have felt like they were taking friendly fire from a supposed ally in the Murdoch-owned broadsheet.

As for the chief criticism of The Road to Ruin: that neither Credlin or Abbott were given the right of reply, I think it’s a fair call. It’s a basic principle of good journalism that people be given the opportunity to respond to their accusers. This is particularly the case for Credlin in light of Savva’s very unsympathetic portrayal of her, which smacks in part of retribution.

However, there is nothing to suggest that Savva made anything up, indeed many people are quoted on the record, a very powerful aspect of her book.

Savva has strongly defended her decision not too seek responses from her two protagonists, saying she believed both have a big enough public platform to give their side of events, (and which has proved true).

“They can go out there any day, any night, any day of the week and say what they think happened or give their version of history, which, I might add, is completely at odds with almost everybody else’s version of what took place,” she said in an interview with the ABC.

If it’s a flaw, then its a very minor one in my opinion and does not distract much from what is elegantly written, finely paced political saga which is certain to become a classic of its genre.