Friday, October 26, 2007

REVIEW: The Sea, by John Banville

The Sea, by John Banville. Published 2006 by Vintage. Literary fiction. Winner of the Man Booker Prize.

John Banville's The Sea won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 and so I had high expectations- not only did I expect it to be an excellent book but I expected to really enjoy it. I don't think it would have stood out for me on the bookshelves had it not been for that perky little gold sticker. You know, yet another novel about some old guy reminiscing about his first crush. Yawn, right? Some of my favorite books have been Booker winners though- my all-time favorite novel, Possession, by A.S. Byatt, won in 1990, and others like The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (no, I didn't like the movie), The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro, and The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, are books that I treasure. Then there's Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan, 1998's winner, so they're not all golden, but I digress.

I think The Sea is quite polished and accomplished- like the best student in class, it's neat and clean, sits with its hands folded at the front of the room and turns in its excellent work on time but lacks the spark of real genius. The book opens as the narrator, Max, whose wife has just died after an extended illness, moves into the Irish boarding house that was the scene for his first experiences with love and death. One followed quickly upon another one brief summer when he was 11, and it seems fitting to return there now that once again he has experienced the death of a beloved. (Fitting in a literary sense, anyway- I'm not sure a real person would end up back there in any sense but the psychological.) The narrative goes back and forth between three time lines- the childhood summer, his years with his wife Anna, and the present tense, Max's unhappy after-life boarding with the spinstery Miss Vavasour and an enigmatic loner known only as the Colonel.

The tone of The Sea is elegiac, mournful- slow and heavy and the writing is characterized by the same literary artfulness as the premise. Occasionally some violent emotion bursts through the otherwise calm surface and the reader gets a sense of Max's turmoil- his hopelessness and grief and loss. I wish there had been more moments like this, more touching the wound as it were. I know the book is very well-crafted but sometimes it felt over-composed. Perhaps the effect is intentional, meant to contrast with the outbursts and show Max's fragility. Still I found it difficult to connect with Max. He's not really that likable- he wants to appear worldly but his irony and sarcasm (not to mention his alcoholism) undercut his sophistication. He seems to lack affection for his daughter, who he describes as unattractive and unambitious, yet attached to a man he deems unworthy. And his memories of Chloe, the little girl he loved, are detached and don't sound to me like the way an 11 year old would experience first love, although I've never been an 11 year old boy so what do I know. His outbursts, his testiness and his anger, do render him more human, however.

We know early on that his memories of the house itself aren't accurate so it's possible his other memories are equally distorted. Later we find out that there were some adult goings-on in the household that his childish perception missed entirely, and we find out one important fact in particular at the end, to do with the identity of a character who would otherwise have faded into the background. I have to say that I really wish I had known this thing at the beginning; holding back this little fact struck me as parsimonious. I mean, I know it's meant again to underscore the overall artistry of the novel but it wasn't really that crucial, not some 180 spin, just a little twist, like a quarter of a turn, and I think I would have enjoyed the book more had I just known. When the realization hits, though, it crashes down hard, and that moment- a casual, throw-away remark- was for me the most dramatic of the entire book.

Overall, I think The Sea is certainly deserving of the recognition it has received from the Man Booker committee and is definitely a worthy, meaty, literary read, if you're into that kind of thing. It's one of those books that I appreciated but didn't really like. Oh well.


FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

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