Author: John Banville
Publishing Date: 2005
Number of Pages: 264 pages
When art historian Max Morden returns to the seaside village where he once spent a childhood holiday, he is both escaping from a recent loss and confronting a distant trauma.
The Grace family had appeared that long-ago summer as if from another world. Mr. and Mrs. Grace, with their worldly ease and candour, were unlike any adults he had met before. But it was his contemporaries, the Grace twins (silent, expressionless Myles, and fiery, seductively poised and forthright Chloe), who most fascinated Max. he grew to know them intricately, even intimately, and what ensued would haunt him for the rest of his years and shape everything that was to follow.
When the 1989 Man Booker Prize contenders, John Banville (The Body of Evidence) and Kazuo Ishiguro (Remains of the Day) went head-to-head again for the 2005 honors, a tight and hotly-contested race ensued. When the showdown between Banville’s The Sea and Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go reached a gridlock, (it is said that) the final verdict was handed down by the body’s chairman, John Sutherland. In a reverse of their 1989 encounter, The Sea was declared the 2005 winner, although critics have ever since questioned the bittersweet victory.
I learned about this only after reading the book (in the process of writing this review). I didn’t learn about its colorful backstory when I made it part of my September Man Booker Prize Month. When I bought the book, I didn’t have any inkling on what it was about, except that it won the Booker Prize. Moreover, it was hard not to miss how uncannily the title echoes that of another Booker Prize-winning work, Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea, which was the first book that I read for my Booker Prize month.
“We carry the dead with us only until we die too, and then it is we who are borne along for a little while, and then our bearers in their turn drop, and so on into the unimaginable generations.” ~ John Banville, The Sea
John Banville’s The Sea relates the story of Max Morden, an art historian. Recently widowed, he retreated to the seaside where he once spent a childhood holiday to recuperate and cope up with the loss. But it wasn’t just his recent loss that he was coping with. By retreating to the seaside, he didn’t realize that the memories of his encounter with the Grace family would start to haunt him. As emotions that lingered for years start to surface, Max must travel back to the past to solve the riddle that is the present.
After reading the book, the first thing that struck me is how it the context of the story mirrors that of Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea. On the surface, the main point in both novels is how the main characters retreated to the sea to heal, to reflect, and to recover. Whenever we are going through tough times, whenever we feel burdened, we retreat to our comfort zones, searching for vestiges of tranquility away from the burgeoning reality that is gripping us. We all seek peace, and it was aptly depicted in both novels.
The Sea shares a particular element I have dug in three Booker Prize-winning books I have read in September. These four novels – Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea, Coetzee’s Disgrace, and lastly, The Sea – have , ijn different ways and extents, explored human nature, from its profoundness to its complexities. In the 2005 winner, Banville ruminated more on an individual’s capacity to cope with loss and grief; he dwelt on its ubiquitous qualities and how it shapes our lives post-loss. Loss and death have ways of shaping and disrupting our realities in ways we never thought or expect it could. In Max Morden, Banville was able to portray the prototype of the grieving man inside all of us.
“Happiness was different in childhood. It was so much then a matter simply of accumulation, of taking things – new experiences, new emotions – and applying them like so many polished tiles to what would someday be the marvelously finished pavilion of the self.” ~ John Banville, The Sea
Max Morden is the epitome of a grieving person – dazed in confusion, he is having a generally difficult time coping with his recent loss. His coping mechanisms are mostly logical and are things most readers could easily relate to; it is always difficult trying to get over a loss. Max wallowed in his grief and eventually turned to alcohol to numb the pain, causing him to ignore his works. He became more mellow and began seeking answers or something that he can hang on to. In his search for elusive answers, he goes back into his past, into his safe haven beside the sea.
Even the way the story is conveyed echoes the sentiments of its main storyteller and primary character. To the ordinary spectator, the writing feels disordered, an abstract piece of muddled memories. However, if one is to dig deeper into the narrative one realizes that the book and the character are one, hence, the disorganized and perplexing state of the narrative. This disorderliness is a clear reference to the state that Max was in throughout the narrative. The way the book depicts this instance is one of its biggest accomplishments.
The nostalgic and emotional journey of Max Morden is something that a lot of readers can relate to – the confusion, the difficulties, and even the mess. His reflections are not always logical but they nevertheless resonate with profoundness. The role memory plays in the grieving process is quite evident. Moreover, John Banville did a commendable job in sewing these elements together. It is a short, uncomplicated work but something that must be relished slowly with intent.
“There are times, they occur with increasing frequency nowadays, when I seem to know nothing, when everything I know seems to have fallen out of my mind like a shower of rain, and I am gripped for a moment in paralysed dismay, waiting for it all to come back but with no certainty that it will.” ~ John Banville, The Sea
Despite the book dealing on a heavy subject, I found the book not overly taxing because of its wonderfully handcrafted prose that seamlessly flowed with sentimentality and emotions. Banville constructed dialogues and sentences artfully, optimizing language to deliver a great book, which is a profound exploration of grief and loss. The way Banville navigated through this difficult subject is realistic and tenable. It may lack what one would consider as “explosive” retorts but what purpose does books serve if not to deliver a message. In this aspect, The Sea delivered more than that.
P.S. I have mentioned that we do have the tendency of retreating to places of comfort is times of confusion, of pain and in grief. The sea is easily one of our safe havens. The water lapping on the shores paradoxically resonate with calmness that transports the mind and the soul away from the tumults of reality. I can understand why the sea plays a major role in most literary pieces, e.g. Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea, Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name to name a few.
Recommended for readers who like reading books set near the sea, readers who like books about reflections, readers who appreciate abstract and readers who want to read books related in the first-person perspective.
Not recommended for readers who prefer linear and formulaic storytelling.
About the Author
William John Banville was born in December 8, 1945 in Wexford, Ireland and is the youngest of three children. Both his siblings, Vincent Banville and Anne Veronica Banville-Evans are published writers as well.
Banville received his education from CBS Primary and St. Peter’s College, both in Wexford. He did not enroll in university and instead started working as a clerk at Aer Lingus. After staying in the United States from 1968 to 1969, he returned to Ireland where he became a sub-editor at The Iris Press. He eventually rose to the position of chief sub-editor.
Banville’s first published work was Long Lankin (1970), a collection of short stories. His first published novel was Nightspawn (1971), which he disowned. He has written three trilogies: The Revolutions Trilogy, three books collectively referred to as Frames, and a set consisted of Eclipse, Shroud and Ancient Light. The Book of Evidence (1989), which is part of the Frames trilogy was shortlisted for the 1989 Booker Prize and won the Guinness Peat Aviation award. His fourteenth novel, The Sea (2005), won the 2005 Booker Prize. Starting 2006, Banville begun publishing crime novels under the pseudonym Benjamin Black.
Banville has two sons with Janet Dunham and two daughters with his current partner, Patricia Quinn.