While not at all typical in its writing style or its telling, John Banville's The Sea is a book with a familiar story. An older man suffers a tragedy that stops his life short and in the process looks back at a particular point in his youth, another moment that he realizes far too late that defines him. It's the story Richard B. Wright told so well in October, that Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses explores so deftly, and that Banville toys with in The Sea. His protagonist, Max Morden, has just watched his wife die from an insufferable illness and simply can't cope. He leaves his life (and even refuses to go back to the house they shared together) and returns to the small sea side town where he used to vacation with his parents before they split up.
The small village of Ballyless, miles away from a town ironically called Ballymore by Max, holds sway over him. It was the site where he fell for his first love, a tempestuous, temperamental and even bullying tomboy of a girl named Chloe. As Max grieves for his wife, he rolls back over the motions of his life, the summer he spent with Chloe and her (I'm assuming autistic) brother Myles, their governess Rose, and their parents, Mr. and Mrs. Grace. Much more than a symbol, the sea itself governs all of his actions that summer, he shows off swimming, they play at the seaside, and every character changes during the time they spend by the water, some for better, some for worse.
With both of his defining relationships now behind him, his marriage and his definitive first love, Max seems unable to move beyond either. Moored to both experiences as a boat to a dock, he can't cast himself off from the past, even though his daughter desperately wants to save him from himself. An art critic, he can't help but look at everything with the same discerning eye he would apply to a painting, pulling his life apart strip by beautiful strip, setting it under the same disturbing light he applies to his professional life.
I dogeared so many of the almost-200 pages of this novel and constantly wondered about Banville's impressive vocabulary, his superb ability to create suspense within a story without the reader ever expecting the tale's many twists, and how he packed so much into such a short novel. I can absolutely see how and why he won the Booker for this novel in 2005.
PHOTO IN CONTEXT: The book sitting on top of my book, that I printed out in its entirety yesterday, shocked and kind of thrilled at the size of the manuscript.
READING CHALLENGES: Tackling two lists: Around the World in 52 Books, The Sea counts toward Ireland, and it's also a 1001 Books book.
WHAT'S UP NEXT: Tim Winton's The Turning.