The Sea – John Banville

 Many reviewers have commented on the lack of ‘a story’ in this book. I can’t understand what these people expect from a novel. Neither can I imagine what event they find more dramatic then the death of a loved one. The other constant refrain concerns Banville’s style. I can’t remember many mistakes or poor sentences. But the substance of any literary work is what is being said.

 What actually happens is the thing that matters most. 

A lot happens in The Sea. The protagonist, Max, is an art historian writing candidly and brashly about his memories and on his reflections following the slow death of his wife from cancer. Banville’s engrossing and shocking description of the hospital patients his wife decides to photograph is one of the most memorable parts of the book. The work is composed of disjointed fragments that suit the fragmented nature of Max’s unravelling mind. The writing becomes more literary towards the end and increasingly reminiscent of Mallone Dies. This seems a bit forced or accidental. Perhaps, Banville is attempting to portray the grandeur involved in the mind’s escape from order and sanity.

 The meat of the work is Max’s memory of the summers he spent as a child in a seaside town, where he now chooses to reside. As a boy he had fallen for a young girl named Chloe, although only after his initial powerful crush on her mother. The dramatic culmination of their relationship doesn’t seem to have a strong enough effect on Max in later life. There’s no Lolita style syndrome. I’m not asking for anything obvious. But the mean and egotistic Max who begins a life with his wife, Anna, doesn’t show enough signs of trauma. This young boy also had a dad walk out on him and the overabundance of drama doesn’t allow the reader to concentrate on the paucity of Anna’s passing. Her death is written magnificently and shockingly towards the end.

Overall The Sea is a disjointed book with moments of startling beauty and Banville occasionally conjures up perfect metaphors. Its strongest moments are about a boy, full of wonder, experiencing sensuality for the first time and the higher feelings thus provoked, and a man, full of sober disappointment, confronting his experience as a strange, intangible passing screen.

 

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