The Sea by John Banville

The Sea

The Sea

John Banville (Adult Fiction)

Recent widower Max Morden, looking for respite and solace from his grief, returns to the seaside town where he spent his summer holidays as a youth.  Once there, he rents a room in the Cedars, the same house where he met the affluent, affable, and alluring Grace family.  But memories can be both haunting and comforting and as Max begins to remember his first experiences with love and death, he understands just how fragile and unpredictable life can be.

The Sea was the 2005 winner of the Man Booker Prize and despite its bestseller status and numerous accolades, I was counting the pages to its completion (I don’t provide a review unless I finish a book in its entirety).  I agree with critics and reviewers that the writing is indeed superb, but I found it so over-the-top in its detail that I quickly became a victim of prosaic poisoning.  Here is an example of Max describing his mental haze before his wife, Anna, receives her fatal diagnosis: “In the ashen weeks of daytime dread and nightly terror before Anna was forced at last to acknowledge the inevitability of Mr. Todd and his prods and potions, I seemed to inhabit a twilit netherworld in which it was scarcely possible to distinguish dream from waking, since both waking and dreaming had the same penetrable, darkly velutinous texture, and in which I was wafted this way and that in a state of feverish lethargy, as if it were I and not Anna who was destined soon to be another one among the already so numerous shades.”  Again, simply beautiful in its artistry and imagery, but completely exhausting to absorb and resulted in more frustration than enjoyment on my part.

Another aspect of this book, which only added to its incredible weightiness, is that it lacked chapters and was only separated into Book I and II.  The Sea was simply paragraph after paragraph after paragraph with the occasional (and much welcomed) double-spaced separation.  It’s as if John Banville was feeding us a wonderfully delectable five-course meal and never giving us the opportunity to savor, swallow, and digest each bite.  We just keep getting spoonful upon spoonful and end up pushing ourselves away from the table for our own self-preservation—leaving a perfectly lovely meal unappreciated.

The downfall of writing a story where each word and phrase are so meticulously constructed is that you have characters that feel a bit one dimensional and lacking true warmth or vulnerability.  It’s like a room staged for an opulent magazine spread.  While it’s gorgeous and truly exquisite, you really can’t imagine living in it for it’s missing the heart and soul that allow you to connect with it.  That immersive feeling that wraps around you like a warm blanket or well-worn bathrobe.  But we’re not talking about a room or a home, but something majestic and vast and powerful and in the end, that is the problem with this book.  The problem is that we’re dealing with the sea.

Rating: 3/5

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