Jim's Reviews > The Sea

The Sea by John Banville
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Jun 28, 07

Recommended for: Irish lit lovers

Like many of Banville's books, The Sea presents itself to the reader as a fictional document penned by the narrator that alternates the present with the past. This narrator likes to drink, has a hard-on for fine art even though he has failed to establish a name for himself in this principal passion, has fallen on hard times, and makes a fetish out of descriptions of the effect of light. (One wonders if Banville keeps track of all the things he's illuminated, and the things he's compared them to, so that he doesn't repeat himself.) This is definitely Banville territory, but where, I wondered, were the scoundrels, murderers and pederasts?

The prose is dense, the pace is slow, and the characters are exceptionally timid people -- a spinster daughter, a consumptive Army colonel, a widower who drinks too much -- each more unsympathetic than the last. Banville's protagonists are always massively flawed men, but we permit the paragraphs about oil paintings or the way a patch of light shimmers on the floor because they are digressions. These are men who do things. Granted, they are nasty, rotten things, but they are very efficient as conflict-generating machines. The Sea's narrator is all the more loathsome because he has done nothing with his life and doesn't aspire to change. No plot, no conflict, no drama. I was convinced Banville's fourteenth novel was nothing more than a memory experiment gone awry, chugging sluggishly to nowhere.

Then, halfway through the novel, everything changes. The phantom plot materializes and asserts itself in a way that makes you realize it was there all along, buried in the now essential digressions. The characters crackle with acrimony, the relationships become increasingly adversarial, all of which distracts the reader from a plot turn so startling, fresh and - yes, epiphanic - it's impossible to see it coming. The accumulation of detail reaches a kind of critical mass that transforms the narrative into something utterly new. The Sea is to the short novel what "The Dead" is to the long short story. I was blind not to have seen it sooner; thankfully, the judges of the Booker Prize were not.

(Excerpted from an review published in October 2005 at The Elegant Variation:

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message 1: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim Thanks, Wally!

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