The Sea, John Banville’s Booker prize-winning novel, is one of the best books I’ve read in a while. A writer who knows exactly how to use the language without resorting to gimmickry is extremely refreshing. And while The Sea may not be heavy on plot, Banville builds enough tension through the 300 pages or so to make this an easy read.
The narrative voice is that of Max Morden, an aging art historian trying to come to grips with a recent loss. He finds himself inexplicably drawn to the site of childhood events.
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? ~ Amazon
Banville draws us into Max’s life – and mind – quickly. Using a quietly eloquent narrative voice, he lays bare Max’s ramblings, his fears, his darkest places and happiest reminiscences. Dialogue is spare, and heightens the sense of loneliness that emanates from these pages. Stripping away layers of history – recent and long gone – Banville takes us into the heart of Max, his very flawed and very human protagonist.
His descriptions of the small seaside town are evocative; his characters sharply delineated and intensely personal. I found myself wanting to reread many of the passages just to let the sheer beauty sink in. Because he avoids excessive dramatisation, the real moments of drama have more weight, and the climax – when it comes – is every bit as shattering as the quiet build-up of tension suggests.
Having experienced cancer up close with my father, I also found many notes of resonance with Banville’s descriptions of the shock, the stillness, and the angry resentment that the disease brings in its wake.
Through Max’s memories and his relationships, Banville probes questions on aging, death, childhood, identity and remembrance. And I find it hard to recall the last time any book did this with so much poetry, so much simplicity, and so honestly.