Famous last words

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How many of you are bold enough to read the ending of a book before beginning it? I might take an occasional guilty peek but only when a novel begins to drag. As a rule I am an obedient reader and let the author lead the way. Also when I am enjoying a book, the ending becomes ever more precious and I want to appreciate the full power of the finale.

There is a popular notion that a writer has to capture his or her potential reader on the first page. With all the emphasis on the opening of a novel, I haven’t been giving that much thought to endings but as far as any lasting impression of a book goes, the ending has more weight. It is the place where you are likely to hear the author’s voice most clearly and often find the real message of the book.

To the most recent example: I have just finished On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, a wonderful depiction of lost love. The private hell of the newlyweds’ wedding night is beautifully portrayed but it is the row on the beach after Florence and Edward’s doomed attempt at lovemaking that broke this reader’s heart. The two main characters are trapped in an escalating argument where they find themselves saying the most hurtful and reckless things to each other, simply because honesty is impossible.

So it makes perfect sense to me that McEwan ends the novel back at the beach on that fateful night, with the message that not even a lifetime of regret can undo the consequences of our actions, or in this case, inaction.

On Chesil Beach he could have called out to Florence, he could have gone after her. … Instead, he stood in cold and righteous silence in the summer’s dusk, watching her hurry along the shore, the sound of her difficult progress lost to the breaking of small waves, until she was a blurred, receding point against the immense straight road of shingle gleaming in the pallid light.

Here are a few more endings for your enjoyment:

The Gathering by Anne Enright

Gatwick airport is not the best place to be gripped by a fear of flying. But it seems that this is what is happening to me now; because you are up so high, in those things, and there is such a long way to fall. Then again, I have been falling for months. I have been falling into my own life, for months. And I am about to hit it now.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

And I thought of a cresting wave of water, lit by a moon, rushing past and vanishing upstream, pursued by a band of yelping students whose torchbeams criss-crossed in the dark.
There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.

A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks

A rare surge of feeling, of something like vindication, came from the pit of his belly and spread out till it sang in his veins. As he stood with his hands in his pockets, staring out over the sleeping city, over its darkened wheels and spires and domes, Veals laughed.

I’ve got to say McEwan with his “cold and righteous silence” is my favourite here but maybe that’s because I’m still under the spell of the book.

(Image courtesy of arztsamui at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

7 thoughts on “Famous last words

  1. Yes, I agree – the Ian McEwan ending is lovely and I like Ann Enright’s too. I didn’t like ‘Veals laughed’ at all. You did very well to finish ‘The Sense of an Ending’ – I just couldn’t warm to the beginning of that book at all. An elderly, avid reader I knew always, always read the last page of a book before deciding to read it or not – I couldn’t bring myself to do that. I like to be taken on a journey, not knowing where I’ll end up. 🙂

  2. What an interesting post. I guess if I’m flicking ahead to the ending, I’ve already given up on the book. I wonder if it’s the beginning that sells the novel but the ending is what decides whether you’d want to hang onto it to read it again.
    Agree with Safia about the Anne Enright and Ian McEwan endings being ones to treasure, although I’m unconvinced anyone can hurry along chesil beach (all those pebbles and what kind of shoes was she wearing?)

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comments ladies. I had intended to write about food in books, sparked by the description of the awful honeymoon dinner in On Chesil Beach but I got sidetracked when I reread the ending. I hope McEwan did spend a few days walking around in square-toed 1960s court shoes to get a feel for his character!

  3. Super post, themed around a great, simple idea. Loved your chosen examples -and how you let them speak for themselves- without an avalanche of commentary. So glad you wrote this one now, as opposed to alternate food one, ‘though that’s although also rich vein to mine.
    I used to be a huge fan of McEwen, read all his book. Still admire him greatly, have not turned into a McEwen-skeptic, ‘tho can understand, last few years, why some are, – something I think to do with the more neo-Gothic, psychology. hysteria almost, of some of lusher passages. But his virtuosity, humour, sensitivity & acute perception are there for all to see, and feel.
    Fawlkes is altogether too lush, and too wordy for me, ‘tho, there are moments in House on Green Dolphin St where i love his interrogation of love, of diffidence, & changing emotions.

    Used to love J Barnes, loved “Talking it Over” for example, need to re-visit him I suspect, and Anne Enright certainly, just a few short stories and essays by her so far.
    Your super post will give me a shove in the right direction.
    Great piece, keep up the excellent work.

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