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Booker Prize-winning author John Banville presents a sensitive and remarkably complete character study of Max Morden, an art critic/writer from Ireland whose wife has just died of a lingering illness. Seeking solace, Max has checked into the Cedars, a now dilapidated guest house in the seaside village of Ballyless, where he and his family spent their summers when he was a child. There he spent hours in the company of Chloe and Myles Grace, his constant companions. Images of foreboding suggest that some tragedy occurred while he was there, though the reader discovers only gradually what it might have been. Now at the Cedars, he contemplates the nature of life, love, and death, and our imperfect memories of these momentous events.
As Max probes his recollections, he reveals his most intimate feelings, constantly questions the accuracy of his memory, and juxtaposes his childhood memories and his recent memories of his wife Anna's "inappropriate" illness and her futile treatments. Through flashbacks, he also introduces us to his earlier life with Anna and his fervent hopes that through her he could become someone more interesting. "I was always a distinct no-one, whose fiercest wish was to be an indistinct someone," he says, confessing that he saw her as "the fairground mirror in which all my distortions would be made straight."
More a meditation than a novel with a strong plot, The Sea brings Max to life (such as his life is), recreating his seemingly simple, yet often profound, thoughts in language which will startle the reader into recognition of their universality. To some extent an everyman, Max speaks to the reader in uniquely intimate ways. In breathtaking language, filled with emotional connotations, he captures nature in perfect images, often revealing life as a series of paintings--"a Tiepolo sky," a hair-washing scene reminiscent of Duccio and Picasso. He objectifies his thoughts about memory through Pierre Bonnard's many portraits of "Nude in the Bath," paintings of Bonnard's wife in which she remains a young girl, even when she is seventy years old. Images of the bath and the sea pervade the novel--cleansing, combined with the ebb and flow of life.
Lovers of plot-based novels may find that the lack of external action and the novel's focus on the interior battles of an ordinary man of about sixty fail to engage their interest. Other readers, who may have faced the deaths of family or friends and recognized the limitations of memory, however, may see in Max a kindred spirit to whom they respond with empathy. I have rarely read such a short book so slowly--or reread with pleasure so many passages of extraordinary beauty and import--and I felt a connection with Max that I have never felt before in any of Banville's previous novels. I loved this novel. Mary Whipple
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on 8 January 2006
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.
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on 18 July 2006
A middle-aged man, Max Morden, returns to a seaside village, a place from his childhood, in a journey of memories following the death of his wife. As the story develops, many secrets unfold, in a dramatic story of life and death and a disclosure that completely changes Max's perception of the events that took place.

The stunning feature of the book is Banville's writing. It is intensely poetic. It is filled with images and nuances. From every word is squeezed the last drop of meaning, suggestion and emotion. With few fragments of reported speech and little quotations, there is no dialogue. Instead we have a soliloquy that conveys the thoughts, feelings and memories of a man coming to terms with bereavement and death.

Don't expect a fast-paced action story. This is a beautiful book, a work of art in which the stories interweave and the scenes are described at a pace that lets them breathe as we are drawn deeply into Max's troubling and painful world. Even through this, there is a sense of optimism and rebirth: the novel is aptly named, for the sea was there at the beginning, will wash clean, and will be there at the end.
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on 24 August 2005
"The Sea" is a profound meditation on time, loss, memory and longing. Once again, Banville introduces the slightly effete, cultured, late middle-aged male character with a taste for alcohol and a dyspeptic view of the world that we recognise from previous Banville novels. Max Morden has lost his wife to cancer and retreats into a world of nostalgia and a longing for the simplicities of the past, but the past with its lost innocence and simpler relationships carries its own tragedies, and the constant presence of the sea at the edges of the narrative is a metaphor for the unknowability of the forces that shape, and occasionally end lives.
Banville's prose is at his most luminous in "The Sea"; I frequently paused to re-read passages and phrases which captured an essence so accurately or described an image or a feeling with such beauty and aptness that I was left wondering how these effects could be created with mere words.
Banville's work has clearly been influenced by Proust, most obviously in this novel about memory and lost time, but unlike most authors for whom this is true, the comparison with Proust is not an unfavourable one. There is also the strong influence of Samuel Beckett running through all of Banville's work, particularly in the extended interior monologues that constitute his novels (even the occasional passages of dialogue are refracted through the perception of the narrator, so that they become part of his interior thoughts). However, more than in previous novels, the sense of Beckett-esque detachment is moderated by the sense of loss and yearning that permeates the novel, and which makes Max Mordern a more human and sympathetic character than his predecessors in Banville's other novels.
"The Sea" is a rich, rewarding and beautifully evoked novel that resonates with the reader. We are fortunate to have a writer of Banville's calibre - and the comparisons with Proust and Beckett are, for once, appropriate for a living writer - working at the height of his powers and producing books of this quality.
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The Sea will either delight or aggravate you. Some may experience both reactions.
The delight will come from finding a surprising word choice or unexpected detail on almost every page, the unusual development of the plot and the rapid shifts between thought, memory, perception, desire, musing and reflection. For some, the fresh descriptions of male sexual awakening will also be sweet.
The aggravation will come from realizing that the story could have been told more directly. You will also feel yourself being manipulated quite often. The word choices could have been more direct. The surprises on each page become almost mechanical after awhile. Deal with the aggravation is my advice. Otherwise, you'll miss the chance to see how often you jump to unwarranted conclusions. Reading this novel is like holding up a mirror to see your mind's perceptions and prejudices.
You won't realize much of the book's power until you're done. If you are like me, you'll immediately want to read it again.
The story takes place while Max Morden recovers emotionally from his wife's untimely death from a wasting illness. Uncharacteristically, Morden avoids family and friends to be quite alone most of the day while staying in a run-down rooming house where he experienced many delights as a youngster. Being there brings up many memories of the Grace family . . . surely a metaphor for inspiration in this lover of Bonnard. You'll find yourself drawn into those long-ago memories as well as Morden's unhappy reaction to his wife's loss. But you'll also know that there's an enigma wrapped in a mystery. Gradually, all will become clear through the mental peregrinations of Morden.
I don't remember stream of consciousness done in sentences in quite as interesting a way as Mr. Banville achieves. All aspiring novelists must read this book!
Here's an example of Mr. Banville's power to evoke irony:
"There are other things I can do. . . . Or I might retire into a monastery to pass my days in quiet contemplation of the infinite, or write a great treatise there, a vulgate of the dead. I can see myself in my cell, long-bearded, with quill-pen and hat and docile lion, through a window beside me minuscule peasants in the distance making hay, and hovering above my brow the dove refulgent. Oh yes, life is pregnant with possibilities."
Enjoy this original and provocative work.
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I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It did not revolutionise my understanding of the `the novel'; it did not effect my perception of any history, society or geography; it has not changed my life - and I doubt it will; it is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I have read. This is such luxurious prose that you can feel it wrapping you up in its stimuli. When reading, your senses seem elevated: I could smell the sea on the drizzle that fell on my face as I stepped off the bus (in London) after reading a twenty-page chunk; I could feel the burn of the brandy in the back of my throat as the narrator drank, and I could feel the sun burning through my eyelids the morning after; no matter what I played on my iPod whilst reading, all I could hear was Vaughan Williams' The Sea.

The plot is just satisfying enough, but it is more a vehicle for Banville's writing which satisfies so much deeper than any plot - this is prose that evokes the poetry of Heaney and Hughes and touches your core, causing your senses and emotions to soar with only the power of a twelve-word sentence.

This book fully deserves the recognition that I doubt it would have received without the Booker.
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on 25 April 2007
This was the first book of Banvilles that I have read (yes, I'm a slave to the Booker) but I found it enjoyable and exceptionally rewarding. In some ways this reminded me of Something Happened by Joseph Heller - the book was a tender description of his feelings for all but the last few pages when there is a dramatic event and then a revelation. Banville is a skilled writer, and the character of Max emerges complete - the way that the other characters sometime appear to be half-formed reflects the way we sometimes review the past.

I especially enjoyed the way that he wedded the past to the recent present, interweaving recollections about the two women he had loved, though one got the sense it was the ghost of the past to whom he felt the most attachment.

The beauty of the book was added to by the deployment of a rich vocabulary - it was a real feast of adjectives - that didn't smother the book but helped to heighten the tenderness Max felt for his past. Whilst it is true that there isn't much meat to this slender volume, Banville has created a fragile story that reflects the nature of the love he writes about.

It is easy to see why this book stood out to the Booker judges - it is essentially a dissertation of feeling rather than a dramtic love story. This is a book that is definitely worth investigating, though not if you enjoy a big plot and plenty of action.
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on 22 March 2006
I generally steer clear of major prize winners - expectation can often diminish otherwise worthy efforts. In this case I am glad I made an exception. This book is an object lesson in the use of prose to convey impression, emotion and characters. (It reminded me at times of Anita Brookner.) It contained many words with which I was unfamiliar (a criticism of myself more than the author), and so I also come out of the exercise a little wiser.
The plot is summarised in the Amazon synopsis so I won't repeat it. Just to say that the book was compelling, moving and evocative and makes one think about one's own personality and motivations. One felt for and cared about the characters, even if not always liking them. The experience of reading it was worth the time, which is how I, at least, end up judging a book (or film).
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on 17 July 2006
The Food Ladies and Novels (FLAN) club Review:

The Sea divided opinion in the FLAN club, with extreme views expressed ranging from "it's rubbish, I hate him" to "worth persevering with". The book chronicles the grief of Max, whose wife has died, and we follow him as he processes his emotions, re-lives childhood memories and returns to old haunts.

Throughout his life, Max seems to have been constantly defining himself through other people, all women. But these women, the ones he feels elevates his status and being, are the ones he has lost - both in childhood and adulthood. Max has always wanted to be something better and can't achieve this on his own.

Max's journey of coming to terms with his loss takes him back to his childhood, where he first experienced it. His struggle with his absorbing emotions of grief is perhaps why we see him have an empathy with the Colonel, portrayed as a pathetic figure of loneliness and ritual.

Members of the FLAN club also picked up on sexual undertones in the childhood memories Max describes. Mrs Grace is described in sensual terms as Max's teenage sexuality kicks in. Some members believed there was also implied sexual abuse in the Grace family - we see Mr Grace grab Chloe, Myles is mute and Chloe herself seems to have an overt sexuality, seen at its extreme when she forces herself on Max at the beach whilst holding her brothers hand.

The language of the book was self-consciously flowery and at times alienating for the group. A moment of contrast was when Max was describing the hospital scenes and Anna's condition - all in very clinical terms. This was a marked difference to the colour and exuberance of his early years and his descriptions of intense waves of grief.

It was hard to strike an affinity with Max as a central character - by his nature he isolated himself, even from his daughter, and his story is essentially a selfish testament to his own experience. The reader never really gets a sense of who he is as a person - indeed we don't get a description of him until the tail end of the book. However, we do see him resolving his relationship with his daughter and at peace with the Sea in the final pages, leaving him coming to terms with his wife's death.

Members felt this was an academic read and comments included "thought provoking" "melancholy" "frustrating" "endearing" and "shocking". It was rated:

Characterisation - 9/10

Language - 5/10

Plot/Storyline - 8/10

Grabbability - 4.5/10

Overall score - 26.5/40
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on 23 November 2010
Banville makes no secret of the fact that when he writes using the pseudonym 'Benjamin Black' he is able to work quickly and relatively easily whilst when it comes to his 'literary' works he is resolutely meticulous in both their planning and execution. In 'The Sea' this is evident from the very first page. It is immediately apparent that he has very carefully considered the style and structure of his novel which is unusual in many ways. Some examples; there is no reported speech, the narrative comes from three distinct time periods and is diffused through a psychologically damaged and therefore potentially unreliable narrator and key elements of the plot, such as it is, are slowly, often painstakingly revealed. Moreover, one can tell that Banville has spent a great deal of time considering each sentence, both the ways the words follow each other and the words themselves. Sometimes this fastidiousness works; despite the fact that book has very little conventional story the reader is still drawn in as Banville's narrator flits between the tale of his burgeoning sexuality, the loss of his wife and his present day attempts to make sense of it all and it is hard not to be impressed by the creative dexterity of much of the prose.

However, inspiring admiration for your undoubted literary talents is not in itself enough to make your novel great. As the book progresses the relentless use of clever words begins to grate a little. It is impossible to read the book without a thesaurus at hand and one cannot help but suspect, perhaps unfairly, that Banville wrote the book with Roget similarly close by. Furthermore it is hard to stay particularly interested in what happens to his basically selfish narrator and whilst the conceit of the unpredictable, ever-shifting, potentially treacherous sea as a metaphor for life itself works to some extent it seems a bit overused as increasingly odd things are revealed about the novel's protagonist's lives (and deaths) on the coast.

Clearly Banville is a good writer and it would be churlish to begrudge him his Booker, but perhaps this is just a bit too smart, perhaps he tries just a little too hard to be brilliant.
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