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This review is from: The Sea (Hardcover)
The awarding of the 2005 Booker Prize (by a whisker, it was admitted) to John Banville for his fourteenth novel - he had previously been shorlisted in 1989 for his astonishing stylistic fusion of penitence (for his crimes) and damn-the-whole-lot-of-you indictment (of society in general), “The Book of Evidence” - was, inevitably, considered a controversial choice.
The tone of “The Sea” is in many ways similar to that of “The Book of Evidence”, and of his other fiction in general. It is another first-person narrative, this time that of the ageing art-historian Max Morden, recently widowed (or ‘widowered’, as he himself tentatively suggests), following the death of his wife, Anna, from cancer, and seeking refuge, solace and a clearer understanding of the past, in a seaside village where he used to spend holidays as a child. His only immediate company there is his enigmatic landlady, Miss Vavasour, and the one other guest, the somewhat caricatural Colonel Blunden...
who may not in fact be a retired colonel at all. Who may very well be a total fraud. But then the question marks hanging over both Miss Vavasour and the colonel are small ones in comparison with the increasing enigma surrounding the narrator himself. As he reminisces alternately about the mysterious Grace family, both feared and worshipped during one of the childhood holidays in the same village, and about the meaning of his marriage to the rich Anna, the reader gradually understands that these are only aspects of a far deeper meditation about his own life and increasingly fragmenting sense of identity and personality.
For the whole novel is an anguished, Beckettian meditation on the nature of the self, and it becomes painfully clear towards the end that the narrator, after peeling away successive layers of onion skin, is on the point of discovering what lies at the centre.
The novel deals unsparingly with the tortures of childhood and sexual awakening, through the narrator’s adolescent fantasies about Mrs Grace, and, subsequently, his more immediate involvement with her twins, the precocious Chloe and the mute Myles and also with the complications introduced by sexual ambiguity, and the intermingling of desire and cruelty.
The discovery that things are neither as simple nor as innocent as they seemed recalls the 1984 Booker winner, Anita Brookner’s “Hotel Du Lac”, as does the
consciously fastidious Jamesian precision of the language, which needs to be savoured and read, and reread, aloud. This much is evident from the outset. But more disturbing parallels only slowly come to light: they are with the tragically self-deceiving narrator of another Booker winner, Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day” (1989). For it takes an accomplished novelist to lead his reader to realise that the narrator, whose version of events we traditionally accept (given that it is all we have), has himself been labouring under an illusion, or a series of illusions. This is surely the major revelation of Banville’s “The Sea”, where the complex symbolism of the sea itself, still and moving, one and many, calm and wild, functions as the mirror of the narrator’s tormented psyche.
Banville’s novel is emphatically not for those who want an entertaining story with a happy ending. But it cannot be too highly recommended to readers who still look to the novel as a distillation of life’s deepest and most timeless dilemmas.