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"THE SEA" - THE WINNER OF BOOKER PRIZE 2005

by John Banville

John Banville's latest novel is simultaneously about growing up and growing old. Its narrator, now in his sixties, is revisiting the Irish coastal resort where, as a child, he encountered the Grace family, who mysteriously changed his life. But Max Morden is not simply retrieving his childhood. His wife having died, he is also in flight from bereavement and the smell of mortality. Interweaving traumatic episodes from his remote and recent past, the novel is concerned with rites of passage: coming-of-age and coming of old age; awakening and dying.

Generically, the situation seems promising. The whispered promise of revelation is reminiscent of, say, Michael Frayn's Spies, which satisfyingly combined reflections in old age with the puzzles and discoveries of childhood. Here, however, progress towards enlightenment is clogged by stylistic excess. Endlessly fussing over his phrases - "if that is the word I want", "if that is the way to put it" - Morden proves a maddening narrator. Self-caressingly fond of fancy epithets ("velutinous", "cinereal", "horrent", "caduceus"), he cultivates a style of puffed-up grandeur. Announcing that his wife was diagnosed with cancer, he writes: "In the midst of the imperial progress that was our life together a grinning losel had stepped out of the cheering crowd and sketching a parody of a bow had handed my tragic queen the warrant of impeachment." Asking his twentysomething daughter whether she still has teddy bears, he says: "Your lares familiares . . . I suppose you have them still, propped on your maiden couch."

Morden's addiction to exotic conceits makes it difficult to determine just what he got up to during his seaside holiday. At the age of 10 he regarded the Graces as "gods" who had singled him out for their favour. Since they had a motorcar and stayed in a big house, while he and his parents rented a chalet, his awestruck response is understandable. But, in fact, this social explanation fades out while the deification of the family remains. Mr Grace is an "old grinning goat god", a satyr (but also, confusingly, "the Poseidon of our summer"). Mrs Grace is a daemon, an avatar, a maenad. The twin children are also recruited for mythology. Myles, who is mute and has webbed toes ("the marks of a godling"), is a "malignant sprite". Chloe, producing "an archaic pipe-note" by blowing on a blade of grass, is Pan. Even the children's governess, Rose, is "Ariadne on the Naxos shore".

Supplementing these mythic allusions are numerous embedded quotations from literature (Yeats, Keats, Milton, Tennyson, Conrad, Shakespeare, Eliot, Stevens) and recurrent analogies from painting. The narrator compares his face in a mirror to the last studies Bonnard made of himself and to an early self-portrait by Van Gogh. He notes that Rose variously resembles a Picasso portrait and a Duccio madonna, and that his daughter, with her "spindly legs and big bum", is like Tenniel's drawing of Alice.

Whose voice are we hearing, one wonders, and what are we to make of it? Morden is a retired art historian, which explains the painterly analogies. He has been, by his own account, a dilettante kept by a rich wife. At one point, he recalls a frustrating dream of typing on a machine "that was lacking the word I". This is not a problem afflicting his waking self: precious, sensitive, narcissistically verbose, he is glued to the first-person pronoun. Perhaps, then, Morden is a flawed narrator. Perhaps his mythic parallels, his artistic allusions, all the apparatus of his cranked-up eloquence are meant to be as laboured as they seem. Yet, tempting as it is, such a reading seems doubtful. Most of the literary features of the book are prominent elsewhere in Banville's fiction, and its climax provides no sense of withdrawal from its egotistical protagonist. In fact, despite Morden's roguish enquiry, "why should I be less susceptible than the next melodramatist to the tale's demand for a neat closing twist?", the climactic revelations, such as they are, lack both neatness and drama. Banville has a talent for sensuous phrasing, and pungent observation of human frailty, but in other areas important for fiction - plot, character, pacing, suspense - The Sea is a crashing disappointment.

-David Grylls (The Sunday Times)

Incandescent prose. Beautifully textured characterisation. Transparent narratives. The adjectives to describe the writing of John Banville are all affirmative, and The Sea is a ringing affirmation of all his best qualities. His publishers are claiming that this novel by the Booker-shortlisted author is his finest yet, and while that claim may have an element of hyperbole, there is no denying that this perfectly balanced book is among the writer's most accomplished work.

Max Morden has reached a crossroads in his life, and is trying hard to deal with several disturbing things. A recent loss is still taking its toll on him, and a trauma in his past is similarly proving hard to deal with. He decides that he will return to a town on the coast at which he spent a memorable holiday when a boy. His memory of that time devolves on the charismatic Grace family, particularly the seductive twins Myles and Chloe. In a very short time, Max found himself drawn into a strange relationship with them, and pursuant events left their mark on him for the rest of his life. But will he be able to exorcise those memories of the past?

The fashion in which John Banville draws the reader into this hypnotic and disturbing world is non pareil, and the very complex relationships between his brilliantly delineated cast of characters are orchestrated with a master's skill. As in such books as Shroud and The Book of Evidence, the author eschews the obvious at all times, and the narrative is delivered with subtlety and understatement. The genuine moments of drama, when they do occur, are commensurately more powerful.

--Barry Forshaw (Amazon.co.uk Review)

The Sea by John Banville
Picador, Priced at $16.99

About the author:


Irish novelist John Banville was born in Wexford in Ireland in 1945. He was educated at a Christian Brothers' school and St Peter's College in Wexford. He worked for Aer Lingus in Dublin, an opportunity that enabled him to travel widely. He was literary editor of the Irish Times between 1988 and 1999. Long Lankin, a collection of short stories, was published in 1970. It was followed by Nightspawn (1971) and Birchwood (1973), both novels.

Banville's fictional portrait of the 15th-century Polish astronomer Dr Copernicus (1976) won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction) and was the first in a series of books exploring the lives of eminent scientists and scientific ideas. The second novel in the series was about the 16th-century German astronomer Kepler (1981) and won the Guardian Fiction Prize. The Newton Letter: An Interlude (1982), is the story of an academic writing a book about the mathematician Sir Isaac Newton. It was adapted as a film by Channel 4 Television. Mefisto (1986), explores the world of numbers in a reworking of Dr Faustus.

The Book of Evidence (1989), which won the Guinness Peat Aviation Book Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction, Ghosts (1993) and Athena (1995) form a loose trilogy of novels narrated by Freddie Montgomery, a convicted murderer. The central character of Banville's 1997 novel, The Untouchable, Victor Maskell, is based on the art historian and spy Anthony Blunt. Eclipse (2000), is narrated by Alexander Cleave, an actor who has withdrawn to the house where he spent his childhood. Shroud (2002), continues the tale begun in Eclipse and Prague Pictures: Portrait of a City (2003), is a personal evocation of the magical European city.

John Banville scooped the prestigious award for 2005 in what was claimed to be the closest-fought Man Booker Prize in years. Twice Booker nominated Banville won the award for his novel The Sea, a book about a man confronting his past in a town where he spent a childhood holiday.

Banville told the audience on the night that his success came as a 'great surprise' to him and was a gracious winner, 'Even if I'd lost I'd still think it was a good year for the Booker. It's been a good year for fiction'.

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