21st century literature, Book review, Booker Prizewinner, John Banville, The Sea

The Sea – John Banville


Read in a Picador 2006 edition. Winner of the 2005 Booker prize.
A generic Booker prize winner is emerging from my reading of recent weeks. The short novel is narrated by an older character looking back on a formative incident from their youth – an incident that is not revealed until well into the novel. This incident has profoundly affected the later life of the main characters, but like the sun cannot be looked at directly, and has to be revealed slowly and through hints and subtle references. Other than this climactic event there is little plot development, and all the characters are seen through the prism of this incident. The typical 21st century Booker favourite is heavy on atmosphere and imagery, but light on some of the more traditional components of the novel such as story.
The Sea could almost have been written as a “How to win the Booker prize” exercise, ticking so many of these boxes. This does it a disservice however, because within the generic Booker candidate is a much stronger novel struggling to get out.
The plot is easily summarised: Max Morden, (a pun on “maximum modern”?) recently widowed, having lost his wife after a long illness, goes to drink himself quietly into oblivion in a seaside boarding house from his youth, where, many years earlier, “something happened” – the traditional formative experience. Max narrates the novel in a stream of consciousness which flits from one time period to another. Slowly the childhood summer where he met the Grace family is unfolded. While clearly distressed at the loss of his wife, the narrator is still able to craft elaborate metaphorical descriptions of the Grace family and their seaside summer.
In what way does this childhood experience make the man, as we are led to conclude? Why does being witness to a traumatic childhood experience, combining sex and death (and while this is a spoiler, apologies, the real surprise would have been if his childhood had not been marked by an experience combining sex and death, wouldn’t it?) make Max the man he becomes? Does it affect his ability to form adult relationships, make a career, or otherwise live his life? Apparently not – there is no real hint that his average career and average life has been affected by the incidents of this extraordinarily long summer.
The fallibility of memory is often a strong theme of these novels, but is played straight here. Max misremembers, adjusts his focus, admits to fallibility, but on other occasions when the authorial voice is stronger has a stroner grasp of time and place. While he recognises these memories may be fallible or flawed, this doesn’t detain him long – nothing comes of the gap between memory and reality.
The reviews quoted on the cover and back of this novel focus heavily on Banville’s use of language. He has a particular flair for imagery which while not directly associated with the thing being described, does have the effect of making the reader pause and reflect. At times this tips over into plain over-writing, such as when a farmyard is described thus – “Big shallow muslin-draped pans of milk lost in their own silence” (53). This doesn’t really mean anything, but has the effect, if you are like me, take another pass at the sentence. Most of the time though the imagery works well; seabirds dive like “torn scraps of rag” (64), a waiter approaches “tentative as a fox cub” (65); a car engine cools “still clicking its tongue to itself in fussy complaint” (79). I particularly liked the narrator’s description of lying in bed next to his wife like “toppled statues of ourselves” (99)
Banville (or is it Morden?) tiptoes on the border with nonsense so frequently that is not surprising that occasionally he oversteps – such as when “being alone with Myles was like being in a room which someone had just violently left” (83); or when Chloe’s teeth are described as having “a faint tinge to the enamel of her incisors that was green indeed, but a delicate damp grey-green, like the damp light under trees after rain, or the dull-apple shade of the underside of leaves reflected in still water” (138).
I have a sneaking suspicion that this is actually a great novel – or more specifically that Banville has the potential to write a great novel. The writing here is allusive, (I got lots of echoes of Eliot which I haven’t traced yet) complex, very clever, and improves with time – rereading for this blog very shortly after the first reading was a surprisingly pleasant experience, not having to worry about the distracting nonsense of the big reveal, and being able to just enjoy the writing instead. Absolutely this is a flawed novel, but would it be too patronising of me to say it shows great promise?