The Sea

“The past beats inside me like a second heart.”

Max Morden, protagonist and narrator of The Sea

I recently finished reading the novel The Sea by Booker Prize-winner John Banville. I’d seen it praised on several blogs, and since I’m always looking for a new writer to delight me, I gave it a try. I’m glad I did.

Sentences from the hands of Banville are breathtakingly complex and beautiful. This is a writer who requires you to pay attention and rewards you if you have. Consider this one sentence from early in the novel:

“I recalled on a deserted, silent, sun-dazed afternoon half a century ago there had sidled up to me on the gravel patch outside Myler’s a small and harmless-seeming dog which when I put out my hand to its bared teeth in what I mistakenly took to be an ingratiating grin and bit me on the wrist with an astonishingly swift snap of its jaws and then ran off, sniggering, or so it seemed to me; and how when I came home my mother scolded me bitterly for my foolishness in offering my hand to the brute and sent me, all on my own, to the village doctor who, elegant and urbane, stuck a perfunctory plaster over the rather pretty purplish swelling on my wrist and then bade me take off all my clothes and sit on his knee so that, with a wonderfully pale, plump and surely manicured hand pressed warmly against my lower abdomen, he might demonstrate to me the proper way to breathe.”

So much is evoked in that sentence, and yet how many of us would dare to write one so complicated, so rich and rewarding? How many of us could pull it off? There were examples like this on each page.

The story involves an older man, the narrator, who, after the death of his wife, returns to a seaside village where he had spent some summers as a child and where a terrible incident had happened. The narrator weaves an account of his present visit to the village, the recent past with the loss of his wife and estrangement from their daughter, and the distant past that he recalls clearly (though he sometimes doubts the veracity of his own memories). The narrative builds to the climax of the three embedded stories, and though it is by no means a whodunit, I found myself trying to guess — incorrectly, it turned out — where the narrative was leading.

There was a surprise revelation about a seemingly minor character near the end of the story that I didn’t think added much and might have made more sense if revealed earlier to give insight into the protagonist’s state of mind during the narration. But that was the only fault I could find amidst plenty I could relish.

The novel is filled with tasty adverbs, that boogeyman of tyros but a precision tool in true expert’s hands. A young woman, for example, is described as clutching her handkerchief “novelettishly.” How many editors would have the sense to leave such a word in, I wonder.

Banville’s style is clearly far apart from the things that come off the Strunk and White assembly line. His rising tide could lift all of our boats if we let it.

John Banville, who also writes under the name of Benjamin Black, is on my future reading list.

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3 Comments on “The Sea

  1. Brian Keaney Says:

    I agree. It’s a sublime novel. The observation of detail is exquisite. The prose seems to advance and recede like the tides that preoccupy the narrator. A worthy winner of the Booker.

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