“We seemed to spend, Chloe and Myles and I, the most part of our days in the sea. We swam in the sunshine and in rain; we swam in the morning, when the sea was sluggish as soup, we swam at night, the water flowing over our arms like undulations of black satin…”
As a child, did you imagine you would be the person you have become? Do you believe memories, especially childhood memories, are like a collection of “polished tiles” that would “someday be the marvellously finished pavilion of the self?” How much of what we remember is true and when does memory give way to fantasy? John Banville explores the unstable qualities of memory and grief in The Sea , a novel awarded the Man Booker Prize in 2005. When we look back at our memories we are confronted with uncertainty, blurred details, figments of imagination, unreliable emotions and doubtful truths about the very events that shape us as adults.
Max Morden returns to a significant place from his childhood (”I shall call it Ballymore”) to grieve his wife’s death. It soon becomes apparent that this seaside village played an important role in shaping Max’s identity and his life. While boarding with Miss Vavasour at ‘The Cedars’, the retired art historian is confronted with the tragic events that happened to a family renting that very house during one of his childhood holidays. Max narrates the story with a combination of raw cynical detachment and a tone that’s sometimes patronising, sometimes despairing as anger, grief and apathy congeal. Meant to be working on a book, he writes about this ill-fated holiday with the Grace family, jumping between his present situation and his past as he attempts to unravel his grief.
“Now here I was at the farm gate again, the child of those days grown corpulent and half-grey and almost old.”
The Sea is a slow novel, with mood and character central to the story, and the full significance of what happened during Max’s childhood is only revealed towards the end. Max’s narrative voice is unreliable, and the reader is invited to become an accomplice as he indulgences in memories often bordering on fantasy. But Max, having lived a comfortable and unambitious life writing about art (according to him), sees himself as an artist too as we wade through the hazy depths of his memories: “Of the three central figures in that summer’s salt-bleached triptych it is she, oddly, who is most sharply delineated on the wall of my memory. I think the reason for this is that the first two figures in the scene […] are all my own work while Rose is by another, unknown, hand. I keep going up close to them, the two Graces, now mother, now daughter, applying a dab of colour here, scumbling a detail there, and the result of all this close work is that my focus on them is blurred rather than sharpened, even when I stand back to survey my handiwork.”
I found Banville’s lyrical prose intoxicating, and the heightened, almost surreal atmosphere adds meaning and nuance to the narrative. His impressive vocabulary and strong sense of place are to be admired too. It took me a while to feel invested in the story as Max’s narration initially kept me (purposefully) at a distance. But I was gradually drawn in as my empathy and understanding for the character grew. The Sea is a short novel, and I think it will be best enjoyed in one sitting or over a couple of days if you can manage it. This one is for those who enjoy literary fiction or who can relate to the themes of grief and bereavement.
Thank you for visiting the Wild Library blog, I hope you enjoyed this book review. Let me know in the comments below if you’ve read The Sea, or any of Banville’s other books. For more book recommendations, have a look at my Wild Reading List. You can also follow me on Instagram for more bookish inspiration.