I’ve been on a John Banville reading binge for some time now and generally I am loving his novels. My most recent read, The Sea has been an absolute stand-out.
The story is told by a newly widowed man who has returned to grieve at a seaside village where he holidayed with his parents as a child. While he stays at a guesthouse called the Cedars he tells the story of a tragedy that happened there during a long-ago summer alternately with that of his wife’s recent illness and death.
Max befriended twins Chloe and Myles Grace the summer when he was 11. The Grace family were staying at the more up-market Cedars, while Max and his parents stayed at a ramshackle Chalet and did their own cooking on a fuel stove. Max fell in love for the first time that summer with Mrs Grace, only later transferring his affections to her aggressive and volatile daughter Chloe, with whom he shared his first, memorable kiss.
Max’s emotions concerning his wife Anna’s recent illness and death are raw. He talked about his awkwardness with Anna while she was dying and not knowing what to say to her as she told him her truths. Max was still dazed by her death and his grief was new, although he was conscious of having been eyed speculatively at Anna’s funeral by their female friends. Max’s relationship with his daughter is strained.
Max was an art historian and there are references to art in the story which reminded a little of those in The Blue Guitar which featured an artist who painted. The story of Max’s lust for Mrs Grace reminded me of the plot of Ancient Lights in which a teenage boy had an affair with an older, married woman. Max wasn’t old enough for anything of the sort, but I expect he would have wanted to pursue Mrs Grace sexually had he been older. Max told his story in a similar way to the main character in Ancient Lights, too. Now that I think about it, everything I’ve read by John Banville deals with grief in some way or other too.
Despite this being a book about grief, there were moments that made me laugh too, such as when the landlady at the Cedars served up a particularly horrible meal that caused Max and a fellow guest to “sit in vague distress listening to our systems doing their best to deal with the insults with which they have been just been served.” I’ve served up a few similar meals to my poor family too. I’ve found John Banville’s character’s faults to be similar to my own in other books, too.
The writing in The Sea is extraordinarily beautiful. This is a book which would be lovely to read aloud and I’m hoping to find a version of this to listen to sometime in the future. While reading The Sea I contented myself by closing a door at home (we’re in COVID-19 lockdown) and reading aloud to myself.
The Sea won the Booker Prize in 2005, so clearly I’m not the only reader who loved it.