Irish author John Banville’s mode of choice is the confessional narrative. His latest novel, The Sea, takes the narrative even further into the confessional, however. It is more of a confessional rumination on the omni-presence of death.
61 year-old art historian Max Morden is at a crux in his life. His wife, Anna, has just died of cancer and he returns to the beach of his childhood. He tries to confront and re-create a pre-pubescent crush on the mother and daughter of the aptly-named Grace family, who brought beauty and elegance into his life like the classical Greek Graces. It was an affair that had far-reaching implications in his own life. Against the swirls of his loves, past and present, the tide ebbs and flows, uncovering, distorting and shaping the land.Max becomes entangled in the lives of the Graces, whose influence is a “fine thread of sticky shiny stuff, like spider’s silk”. As he grows closer to them, so he grows up too.
Death haunts the novel throughout. Max’s wife, Anna, dies a slow decline from cancer. In his childhood, Max has been a witness to the drowning of the two Grace children. In a sense, he too has come to the beach to bury something – his self or his past? Similarly, the presence of the sea is dark and haunting, its ever-changing stability a symbol for the flux of life and, more particularly, death. The presence of death even suffuses the names of the characters. Max’s own surname is “Morden” and the oncologist overseeing Anna’s death is named “Todd”.
The past, in The Sea, is not so much another country. It is more of a “retreat”, into the cosiness and “womby warmth” of the familiar. It is a return to the haunts of old, where ancestral voices do not prophesy but tell of “demon lovers”.It is the narrator who bridges the past and the present but he poses the biggest problem in the book. At the time of this childhood amour, he is only 11 (or even 10) yet he possesses a sexual and emotional knowingness that is way beyond his years. At a beach picnic he suffers agonies of lust as he stares up the mother’s skirts – a barely credible reaction in a self-confessedly naive 11-year old! But this is a retrospective confessional, direct to the reader. The voice is of the 61 year old; educated, sophisticated and wistful.
One of the great delights of any Banville novel is the challenge to one’s vocabulary. It is not a good idea to be too far from a good dictionary. From that point of view, The Sea both meets and disappoints this lexical challenge. As one would expect from an art historian, there is a precision of language, particularly in the description and deconstruction of places, people and events. But there is also an over-fastidiousness about words that borders on the ostentatious. For example, a scar is described as having a “clear ichor’ – a redundancy as ichor is always transparent. Similarly, a fresh scab is described as a “cicatrice” – not so, as a 1-day scar could hardly be described as healed. Am I being over-picky? I think not, given Banville’s reputation for linguistic accuracy.
Banville charts territory that is popular in contemporary Irish fiction. The book’s coastal setting and the use of the sea as metaphor recall Colm Toibin’s excellent The Blackwater Lightship, as does the use of the dying relative. In its exploration of the implications of the past and the use of the old house as a trope, it suggests William Trevor’s recent, haunting The Story of Lucy Gault. Banville, however, has a unique style. The Sea suggests a sharp and incisive mind at work, dissecting elements of the past to derive meaning for the present.
The narrative, too, is considerably more accessible than some of his previous novels. It is just as allusive, but without the obscuring structural frameworks that Banville sometimes uses to obscure rather than illuminate his narrative. Like the youthful passion of the story, its effect will remain with you for some time.