The Sea

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The SeaThe Sea by John Banville
Published: 2005
Narrated by: John Lee
Length: 06:54 (200 pages)

Max Morden is a middle-aged man who has just recently lost his wife to illness, and in his grief has returned to the Irish seaside town where his family used to holiday in his youth. During his time there reflecting on his relationship with his wife, and those awkward final days, his mind goes back to his first childhood relationship that took place in that town many years ago.

This is a beautifully written novel, and I do enjoy a despicable and depressed protagonist, so the combination of the rich descriptions, morose attitude, and nasty internal dialogue really worked for me. Unfortunately, at times, his descriptions became a bit too vivid when he used “warm cheesy smell” to describe the natural musk of multiple characters. I would like that phrase wiped from my mind, please.

Before Anna’s illness I had held my physical self in no more than fond disgust, as most people do – hold their selves, I mean, not mine – tolerant, necessarily of the products of my sadly inescapable humanity, the various effluvia, the eructations fore and aft, the gleet, the scurf, the sweat and other common leakages, and even what the Bard of Hartford quaintly calls the particles of nether-do. However, when Anna’s body betrayed her and she became afraid of it and its alien possibilities, I developed, by a mysterious process of transference, a crawling repugnance of my own flesh.

I found his relationship with his daughter interesting in this. He is awful to her, seemingly forgetting completely that she is hurting too, and it’s a glimpse into that strange moment in life when the child begins to take on responsibility for the parent. This time from the point of view of the parent, a man who considers himself, and is portrayed as being, incredibly self-aware, and yet he doesn’t even seem to notice this happening. He’s depressed and grieving, subscribing to the false idea that the more you suffer the more you cared, and that will make you act and perceive the world in ways you normally wouldn’t, but from the flashbacks to earlier in his life, it seems like he never was the most considerate person.

At times, in the beginning of a scene, it was hard to tell whether we were in the current time or a memory, which is something that would normally bother me, but it worked really well here. The muddiness of the scene transitions really helped past and current events bleed together in a way that made it feel like a single narrative rather than jumping between times.

The past beats inside me like a second heart.

The novel is basically a retelling of the relationships in his life through memories, but it doesn’t really have a plot beyond that. The little motion there is happens in the last 20 or 30 pages. That’s fine, but I think the fact that it was awarded the 2005 Man Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious literary prizes we have, made me think it would be spectacular on every level, plot included. You would think that the prize would indicate an entire package, but Max Morden is essentially the same man at the beginning of the book that he was at the end. I suppose that was maybe the point. An incident in his youth has kept him from entering the sea his entire life since, and his failure to enter the sea at the end of the novel may be an indication of his lack of growth, but I really don’t know.

Ignoring the anemic plot, the occasional cliché (twins with a mysterious connection?), and the few strained similes, this was still a pleasure to read. Something I read compared his prose to Nabokov’s, and I do get that. I don’t think Nabokov tried quite as hard to be clever, but I can understand the comparison – every word feels considered. And he can actually write about sex in a way that doesn’t make me want to turn celibate (apart from the warm cheesy smell thing). I do wish I had actually read it, rather than listened to the audiobook, despite John Lee’s fantastic narration. There were many words in this that were unfamiliar to me. I’m fairly certain some of these words had been lost to the modern English language for decades before John Banville decided to bring them back. It would have been nice to look up a few of them as I read.

Despite my few grievances, I really enjoyed this and may have a look at his other novels. He’s written seventeen fictional novels, as well as a seven additional crime novels under a pseudonym, and I’m curious to see how his other novels are structured.

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