Title: The Sea
Author: John Banville
I've come to the conclusion that Irish authors (the ones I've read, at least) are the most poetic prose writers on the face of the earth. Writers such as John McGahern, Colm Toibin, and Sebastian Barry have left me mesmerized by the shear beauty of their words - words that flow like a river and take me willingly along with them on whatever journey they are going. I'm adding John Banville to that list today after finishing his Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sea.
The Sea is told in first person by one Max Morden, an aging art critic/historian who, after the death of his wife Anna, returns to the place by the sea where he spent his childhood summers. It is here that he reflects on the people and incidents that shaped his life. We as readers join him as he reveals his thoughts on life, love, death, and the experiences of childhood that can take a lifetime to understand. Max tells of his summers when his parents rented a "chalet" - more or less a shack and on the lowest rung of the village pecking order. Higher up in that order was Cedars, a house that was rented out by the week or by the month. Max's involvement with Cedars begins when he meets the Grace family - parents Carlo and Connie, teenager Rose, and twins Chloe and Myles. It is with this family that Max becomes aware of adult feelings of lust and love, beginning with his infatuation with Connie Grace and eventually transferring to Chloe.
"Happiness was different in childhood. It was so much then a matter simply of accumulation, of taking things - new experiences, new emotions - and applying them like so many polished tiles to what would someday be the marvellously finished pavilion of the self." (pg. 108)
Max intersperses his childhood experiences with adult experiences from his relationship with his wife Anna, as they come to grips with mortality via her battle with cancer:
"The truth is, it has all begun to run together, past and possible future and impossible present. In the ashen weeks of daytime dread and nightly terror before Anna was forced at last to acknowledge the inevitability of Mr. Todd and his prods and potions, I seemed to inhabit a twilit netherworld in which it was scarcely possible to distinguish dream from waking, since both waking and dreaming had the same penetrable, darkly velutinous texture, and in which I was wafted this way and that in a state of feverish lethargy, as if it were I and not Anna who was destined soon to be another one among the already so numerous shades...On all sides there were portents of mortality. I was plagued by coincidences; long-forgotten things were suddenly remembered; objects turned up that for years had been lost. My life seemed to be passing before me, not in a flash as it is said to do for those about to drown, but in a sort of leisurely convulsion, emptying itself of secrets and it quotidian mysteries in preparation for the moment when I must step into the black boat on the shadowed river with the coin of passage cold in my already coldening hand...Perhaps all of life is no more than a long preparation for the leaving of it." (pgs. 71-72)
Max's story is not necessarily dependent upon plot nor place, so if you enjoy plot-driven stories you might find this a little tedious. Instead, the dramatic force of the story lies in the emotions derived by Max from his experiences by the sea, both at Cedars and at home with Anna, and his recounting of them as an older adult looking back at his life.
I urge you to read this book. Banville's writing is breathtakingly beautiful. The book is only 195 pages, but it took me as long to read it as a 300+ page novel. I wanted to savor every sentence.