I consider myself a well-educated man but I defy anybody to read a John Banville novel and not have to make a few trips to the dictionary. He certainly has an expansive vocabulary at his disposal. He reminded me of Francis Mac Manus – an Irish writer long since dead. Mac Manus, too, used a pretty impressive vocabulary in his novels (I’ve read all thirteen of them) but his vocabulary appeared to blend in naturally to the text. Banville, however, uses archaic or technical words for effect, probably knowing that the reader may become stuck in the process. John Banville has often been described as a ‘writer’s writer’. From his interviews, it seems he has a healthy regard for his writing ability and has referred to some fellow writers as being ‘middlebrow’ in their literary offerings. What he would have thought of Mac Manus, I have no idea – nor do I know his views about fellow contemporary Irish writers.
The Sea, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2005, is about Max Morden, a retired art historian grieving for his wife who has died of cancer. Her death has rekindled bad memories from his youth when, during one summer, two of his friends (a girl who he had a crush on and her twin brother) were tragically drowned in the seaside resort town where he and his parents were holidaying. To ease his grief and to reconcile with the past, Max decides to go back to the seaside town (named Ballyless) and stay for a few weeks in a guesthouse that he much frequented during his childhood. The novel is full of witty observations, reflections and philosophical mutterings, along with many twists and turns – swaying back and forth between the current day and memories going back fifty years.
Is The Sea a great story? Not quite. It’s a good story though. Ultimately, I enjoyed it but it’s certainly not the most cheerful book I have ever read. This is essentially a novel about grief, so yes there are times when the reader will get a bit fed up. I know I did, and on two occasions over a ten-day period, I placed it aside for a day or two before resuming. Whether it was intentional or not, the novel stirred up in me a range of emotions, not uncommon with grief, so there were times when I felt sad, angry and tired. Having said that, I also laughed (sometimes out loud) at the Irish humour used in his character descriptions. Overall the story is finely crafted and well told and is paced beautifully throughout.
© Declan Henry