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The Sea Paperback – August 15, 2006
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Incandescent prose. Beautifully textured characterisation. Transparent narratives. The adjectives to describe the writing of John Banville are all affirmative, and The Sea is a ringing affirmation of all his best qualities. His publishers are claiming that this novel by the Booker-shortlisted author is his finest yet, and while that claim may have an element of hyperbole, there is no denying that this perfectly balanced book is among the writers most accomplished work.
Max Morden has reached a crossroads in his life, and is trying hard to deal with several disturbing things. A recent loss is still taking its toll on him, and a trauma in his past is similarly proving hard to deal with. He decides that he will return to a town on the coast at which he spent a memorable holiday when a boy. His memory of that time devolves on the charismatic Grace family, particularly the seductive twins Myles and Chloe. In a very short time, Max found himself drawn into a strange relationship with them, and pursuant events left their mark on him for the rest of his life. But will he be able to exorcise those memories of the past?
The fashion in which John Banville draws the reader into this hypnotic and disturbing world is non pareil, and the very complex relationships between his brilliantly delineated cast of characters are orchestrated with a masters skill. As in such books as Shroud and The Book of Evidence, the author eschews the obvious at all times, and the narrative is delivered with subtlety and understatement. The genuine moments of drama, when they do occur, are commensurately more powerful. --Barry Forshaw
From Publishers Weekly
Banville's magnificent new novel, which won this year's Man Booker Prize and is being rushed into print by Knopf, presents a man mourning his wife's recent death—and his blighted life. "The past beats inside me like a second heart," observes Max Morden early on, and his return to the seaside resort where he lost his innocence gradually yields the objects of his nostalgia. Max's thoughts glide swiftly between the events of his wife's final illness and the formative summer, 50 years past, when the Grace family—father, mother and twins Chloe and Myles—lived in a villa in the seaside town where Max and his quarreling parents rented a dismal "chalet." Banville seamlessly juxtaposes Max's youth and age, and each scene is rendered with the intense visual acuity of a photograph ("the mud shone blue as a new bruise"). As in all Banville novels, things are not what they seem. Max's cruelly capricious complicity in the sad history that unfolds, and the facts kept hidden from the reader until the shocking denouement, brilliantly dramatize the unpredictability of life and the incomprehensibility of death. Like the strange high tide that figures into Max's visions and remembrances, this novel sweeps the reader into the inexorable waxing and waning of life. (Nov. 8)
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Top customer reviews
Those who enjoy John Manville know that his prose is lovely-- poetic and philosophical. For this reader, however, the ongoing depictions of every possible nuance concerning the seaside setting is overdone and slows the narrative. That said, the plot of "The Sea" is spellbinding and the characters unforgettable.
Imagine strolling through a world famous art gallery and gazing at the paintings, many of which you already know so well from books or lectures. No doubt many of the paintings would have somber, dark themes, yet somehow the beauty of the art overwhelms, bringing forth awe, enthusiasm...even joy. That is the feeling that reading John Banville's Man Booker award winning novel, "The Sea," was like for this reader.
Max Morden, the narrator, is not an easy character to understand or like. It is precisely his strangeness that keeps us reading. We live in his mind for the entire novel, yet somehow the reader can't quite come to terms with what makes Max the miserable, grieving, self-loathing, isolated man he appears to be.
By profession, Max is an art historian, apparently involved in researching and writing a scholarly book on Pierre Bonnard. But he thinks of himself as "a man of scant talent and scanter ambition." He is disappointed in life, disappointed in his daughter, and disappointed in himself.
After the death of his wife, Anna, Max returns to the only other place in his life where he felt a whole person: The Cedars, a seaside villa run as a boarding house. It was here, as a young boy, that he first experienced love and death. It is the intertwining stories of that time, the recent past, and the present that make up the story line of the novel.
Max is a man who dreams that he owns a typewriter without the letter "i." He prefers dispassionately to observe life. Banville gives us few glimpses of him actually participating in life. For Max, life passes before him like images on a tableau and people seem to exist for him alone and not in their own right. How odd, therefore, that he views himself as being made real only through people.
Max marries his wife because she gave him the chance to fulfill his fantasy of himself. He remembers her with great tenderness. Yet the only time in the novel where Max allows himself to rage against his loss is when you find him thinking: "how could you go and leave me like this, floundering in my own foulness, with no one to save me from myself. How could you."
Usually, the reader is drawn positively to a protagonist. But with "The Sea," the reader is drawn irresistibly to the beauty of the text. The reader falls in love with the words. One novelist, Nabokov, and two poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins and T. S. Eliot, frequently came to my mind while savoring this book.
I read a library copy, but when I finished I bought my own copy. I look forward to reading this book again--like revisiting a favorite poem, or reviewing a grand painting, I am sure I will enjoy it completely anew.
John Banville, in an oblique response to that slur, stated during his acceptance speech that he congratulated the committee for having the courage to select a novel with good writing this year (I paraphrase). This may have been a comment also on the other nominees last year, among them 'Saturday' and 'Never Let Me Go' (I happen to agree with that assessment).
There may be a bit of truth to both sides of that prize skirmish. This novel is a narrative with a weak story line. It is more a stream of consciousness reminiscence and pondering of the past than a novel with a plot. As such, it is a bit static, since nothing much happens outside of the first person singular main character's thought process. However, the observations that he makes about his life are so touching and so profound that one becomes as involved in his life as with an engaging memoirist. The sentences are constructed as carefully as lines of poetry, the words conveying beauty as well as emotional insights.
Approach this book as you would a gourmet meal--ingest it slowly and savor every sentence. And if you go back for seconds and read it again, you'll pick up scents and textures you missed the first time.
Go for it. The calories are worth it here.