The Sea is a very odd little book. On the surface, it is very simple. An elderly man, Max Morden (Morbid - geddit?), revisits the dingy little town where he grew up, recalling his relationship with an odd family that holidayed there, and the recent death of his wife.
On my first reading, I found the novel disappointing. I am a Banville fan. I've read several of his books, and this has given me a sense for what he is about. Even so, The Sea seemed weak at first encounter. I imagine that readers drawn to him for the first time, perhaps seduced by the MAN Booker prize award, will be deeply perplexed as to what is going on.
Banville's books seem to be connected in a loose sequence, and this is the latest installment. Though the characters all have different names, they are all very similar, progressively aging males. They share an interest in art criticism, though not as creators themselves. This is significant, I feel. These people are all fascinated by the creation of artifice. They are not to be taken at face value.
And all speak with very similar voices. Some people find Banville's dense language off-putting. I've read enough of his work to say - I THINK - that this stuffy, affected tone is a deliberate ploy on his part, not merely him being monotonous. His characters use language as a shield or a disguise - often shielding themselves from themselves as from the outside. But when Max faces up to his grie in The Sea, he expresses it in short and brutally obscene spurts of grief.
So, what of the book itself? On my first reading, I think I fell for Max's trick. The whole novel is an exercise in misdirection, as Max tries to focus our attention - and his - on the long dead past. Don't be fooled by him. His grief is raw and deeply felt, but hidden under a miasma of postures and fine words.
Overall, a very effective, subtle novel. It may not be rewarding on a first reading, or to those unfamiliar with Banville's work, but it is worth getting to know.
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