The Sea by John Banville #bookreview

TheSeaJohn Banville was the surprise winner of the Booker Prize in 2005 with his lyrical novel The Sea. Literary pundits had put their money on Julian Barnes’s Arthur and George walking away with the prize or a repeat Booker success for Kazuo Ishiguro and Never Let Me Go.

No-one was more surprised than the Banville at his success, particularly because he felt that two of his earlier books were more like the “middle-ground, middlebrow work” that he felt judges tended to choose. By contrast he considered The Sea to be more of an “art novel”. It was a comment which ruffled more than a few feathers among the literary elite.

Banville’s description of The Sea as an ‘art’ novel could be considered a strange term for a novel that relies on the well-used device of a character returning to a place that played a significant part in his earlier years. But that simplified version of the plot doesn’t to justice to a novel that is a richly textured and patterned meditation on the nature of memory and loss and of the bitter-sweet nature of first love.

In The Sea,the widowed art historian Max Morden returns to the seaside village where as a young boy on the verge of adolescence, he once spent a family holiday. It’s a trip that is at once an escape from the traumatic loss of his wife but at the same time an opportunity to confront a dramatic event that occurred during that summer seaside sojourn. The nature of that event is held back from the reader until the closing pages of the novel, not because Banville is planning a big dramatic reveal but because his real interest is the process of recollection. Morden’s odyssey into his past takes place through a series of vignettes which reveal his relationships with his father, his wife and his daughter. He recalls also the Grace family who also holidayed in the same resort and whose allure he found impossible to resist.

John Banville
John Banville at Hay Literary Festival 2013

This is a tale that sucks you in; that takes you along meandering lanes of memory only to suddenly detour to a different time and place and then unexpectedly switch direction yet again to bring us back to the here and now. Banville has been compared to Beckett though at the 2013 Hay Festival he told the audience his favourite authors are Henry James and Georges Simenon (though not the Maigret novels he was at pains to emphasise).

Reading The Sea is a hypnotic, mesmerising experience largely due to Banville’s mastery of the atmosphere-laden sentence. The opening of the book is tantalisingly enigmatic:

They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide. All morning under a milky sky the waters in the bay had swelled and swelled, rising to unheard-of heights, the small waves creeping over parched sand that for years had known no wetting save for rain and lapping the very bases of the dunes. The rusted hulk of the freighter that had run aground at the far end of the bay longer ago than any of us could remember must have thought it was being granted a relaunch. I would not swim again, after that day. The seabirds mewled and swooped, unnerved, it seemed, by the spectacle of that vast bowl of water bulging like a blister, lead-blue and malignantly agleam. They looked unnaturally white, that day, those birds. The waves were depositing a fringe of soiled yellow foam along the waterline. No sail marred the high horizon. I would not swim, no, not ever again.

Someone has just walked over my grave. Someone.

With an opening like that, I was hooked. And I hope you will be too. This was the first Banville book I had read. I know it will not be the last.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

12 thoughts on “The Sea by John Banville #bookreview

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  • March 4, 2016 at 2:11 am

    Superb novel. it’s not my favourite of his. I know you’re reviewing Ancient Light for The Begorrathon, and in some ways that novel feels like a continuation of The Sea, although in fact it is connected to two other novels – Eclipse and Shroud.

    I well remember the fuss when Banville won the Booker for this, and I do think he has a point about literary prizes going to middlebrow books, but Banville has both a notorious ego (‘my books are never good enough for me – they’re better than everyone else’s, of course, but not good enough for me’) and an interesting history with The Booker.

    I think he should have won it years ago for The Book of Evidence, and a few years later he was nominated again for Athena and was miffed and bewildered why he didn’t win and why that book was not better received by critics.

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  • June 21, 2013 at 4:54 pm

    We read this in one of my reading groups just after it won the Booker and it split the group entirely. Some liked it and others thought it was interminably dull. I suspect it depends on what you look for in a novel.

    • June 22, 2013 at 3:18 pm

      The same thing seems to have happened with people who post reviews on The Complete Booker blog. Which side of the fence were you Alex?

  • June 20, 2013 at 4:07 am

    This is a great book. Have you heard that there’s going to be a film adaptation?

    • June 20, 2013 at 7:05 am

      We were meant to see a preview of part of the film during his Hay talk but it never materialised. I’m intrigued b how you can make a film from an interior monologue.

      Sent from my iPad


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