Tuesday, July 15, 2008

"The Sea" by John Banville

Winner of the 2005 Man-Booker Prize, number 39 in a line of 41 books to read (non-consecutively), The Sea reminds one of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, for all-too-obvious reasons, perhaps. The overwhelming presence of the sea, the prominent place of an attractive mother-goddess (Mrs. Ramsay/ Mrs. Grace), themes of youth, memory, transience, and mortality.

Protagonist Max Morden is a recent widower, having lost his wife, Anna, to cancer. He has retreated to the seaside town where he spent summers as a child, staying in a house which once was the home of the Graces, a family which he idolized as the “gods” in his youth. The narrative switches between the present experience of staying at the seaside; to the recent past, where Max remembers Anna’s gradual descent and death; and his childhood, his experience with the Graces – in particular the children: Chloe, his cruel sometime-girlfriend, and Myles, her mute twin brother.

Critics of the book may accuse the novel of being boring or limited in terms of action. True, there is not a strong emphasis on plot and dialogue, but rather on philosophical musings. It is the poetry of the text which takes precedence. Reviewers (Christian Science Monitor; Sunday Telegraph) compared Banville to Vladimir Nabokov in terms of his precisely worded sentences. Banville’s prose is strangely captivating: he is able to ensnare the pull and release of the ocean in his sentences (“…in a sort of driving heave, the whole sea surged, it was not a wave, but a smooth rolling swell that seemed to come up from the deeps, as if something vast down there had stirred itself…”).

The Philadelphia Inquirer recommends that the novel should be heard, not simply read, and I am inclined to agree.

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