Courtney H.'s Reviews > The Sea

The Sea by John Banville
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's review
Apr 03, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: bookers

This novel is narrated by Max Morden, who has just survived his wife’s painful terminal illness and death. Afterwards, he returns to the seaside town where he spent his summers as a child, where he becomes a long-term renter in a guesthouse populated by its landlady and an elderly retired colonel. Max spends some time looking back on his marriage to his wife, but a great more time on his memories of one summer in particular, when he became fixated on a wealthy family whose children he befriended.
This is going to be a difficult one to review because the book left not much to love, and not much to dislike. What I did dislike I almost am bored of saying, because it is a criticism I’ve had to repeat for far too many of these Bookers: they’re kind of sexist (Dear Old White Men Literary Writers of the Commonwealth: “Women” aren’t any particular thing as a monolith. Not good, not bad. Please go through your manuscripts and delete all sentences that ponder women as a unit. You’re usually wrong and you’re always boring). It is unfortunate that in a novel of really exquisite prose, the sentence that stays with me is the one where the narrator flippantly looks back on his wife’s photography and says “I never took it seriously. Maybe I should have.” Or something quite similar — it would be appalling even if his wife wasn’t, actually, good at photograph, but it turns out later that she probably was quite good. More problematically is that the way he discussed women in this book made it seem as if it was natural that one shouldn’t take a woman’s work seriously. I know, I know—it is Morden who is sexist, not Banville. But I don’t get the sense that Banville really got what was wrong with that statement.
So: OK. There’s the sexism. Again. But at this stage in the Bookers, it is hard to get riled about it, in part because I’ve had to say this so often; and in part because Banville’s quiet, steady prose doesn’t lend itself to riling up anyone. Morden's sexism, like the rest of the plot, isn’t obvious or overwhelming. It is an undercurrent.
The good: Banville is a lovely writer, deft and subtle and contemplative. He knows how to use words. I admit, I had to refer to a dictionary at times, but that fault is with my vocabulary, not his use of it. Pompous writers use archaic words to describe simple things that already have a more accessible synonym. Banville used “big words” when they really were the right words to use. Banville is an extremely descriptive writer. The strength of this book is in the stage it sets—Morden’s thousand words to his wife’s photograph, as it were. But at the same time, this focus on descriptiveness balances in an interesting way against Morden’s self-acknowledged faulty memory, the odd details that stay with you, the things that can be forgotten or rearranged in the memory.
The bad: Banville falls into that bad trap of holding things back in order to create more of a dramatic resolution. While there may be times when such secret-keeping on the part of a novelist is a good thing, it often is overused, and used as a gimmick. To look toward a non-literary analogy, he pulled an M. Night Shymalan: he tried to make a twist ending (a few of them, actually). Not a “he’s a ghost!” kind of twist, but little details that make the whole story fall into place. The problem is, you saw the twist ending, the missing detail—you saw it coming, even before you knew what it was; and then you started looking for it. Maybe it works in the horror genre; here, it just seems forced, sloppy, like he’s not giving us enough respect as readers and as if he didn’t think his story was strong enough to remain powerful and convincing if he gave us the information we needed. In the end, it felt a bit cheap. It really took away from my enjoyment of the book’s climax, because it wasn’t a climax at all. It was the unveiling of two secrets that he didn’t need to keep and hadn’t kept all that well, anyway.
Banville has created a truly three-dimensional, interesting elderly man, looking back on his life. It is a well-trod path for the Bookers, but I thought Banville did a good job of shaping Morden as being slightly different in his introspection, more willing to acknowledge his own faults and more willing to acknowledge that on the whole he had had a good life. This honesty vaulted Morden above many of the other protagonists of similar books. Still, I’m now on my last Booker, A Sense of Ending, which is the same old-to-middle-aged-self-absorbed-man-looking-back and I have to say that this particular theme is getting bit tired. I’m looking forward to moving away from that genre.
(Of course, as I say this, I realize that one of my favorite Bookers (The Remains of the Day) probably would fall into this genre, too, but somehow I can’t think of it like that. It sets itself apart; I guess the themes are different, the introspection much less self-absorbed, the sense of self quieter, a story by an old man about other things, really, and he emerges only through that. But maybe my love just makes me charitable.)
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