Never judge a book by its cover goes the old saying, and one I usually agree with, but exceptions can always be made, and The Sea, The Sea ended up on my reading pile thanks primarily to its cover - simplicity and curly waves.
Thankfully, neither the cover, nor the title let me down, and within the first few pages I was hooked on the quirky, ponderous descriptions of the ocean. The first section of the book is called "Prehistory" and will prove a stumbling block for many readers who don't delight in detail and description: the house, the coast, daily routines and every meal seem to be covered. Bar the sea-monster sighting - or is it an hallucination? - nothing "happens" in the first 97 pages, but our narrator, Charles Arrowby, tells us a great deal about himself, and thus the stage is set for the main act.
The second part (and bulk) of the novel is "History" and it must be said that the pace picks up considerably. Having left his successful theatrical life behind him, Charles has retired to a dilapidated house by the sea for complete solitude, but the living skeletons from his closet begin leaping out all over the place. The realms of probability are stretched to the limit as eccentric ex-showbiz type characters fall over themselves to appear in melodramatic circumstances, and no less fantastical is the appearance of Arrowby's long lost childhood sweetheart. The story recounts his increasingly desperate and far-fetched attempts to win her back, whilst juggling jealous ex-lovers, with a little murder and mayhem thrown in for good measure.
Eventually, in "Life Goes On", his own post-script, Arrowby brings us up to date with the stories of the colourful characters still left... and there's nothing ordinary here either. Meanwhile he continues to fantasise on what might have been, as he fades into obscurity: "Last night someone on a BBC quiz did not know who I was."
It's impossible to summarise this novel, rich and packed as it is with themes and emotions. Everything about it is larger than life - and it does have a sense of theatrical farce about it - and wouldn't the self-serving memoirs of a retired theatre director be just that? Arrowby exposes himself as obsessive, manipulative and selfish in the extreme, wanting the best of all worlds, yet remains oddly likeable: no mean feat. There's also a seam of dark humour here, intertextuality via Shakespeare, and an undercurrent of the supernatural.
Readers who like novels that can be unpicked; novels that throw out questions rather than give answers; novels that are ambitious almost to absurdity, will no doubt find The Sea, The Sea as enthralling and compulsive a read as I did.
NB: John Burnside's thoughtful introduction in this Vintage Classics edition offers a way into the text from a spiritual slant, and is best read afterwards.