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Out With the Tide

Banville's Sea a challenging dazzler


John Banville's recent book, The Sea (Knopf 2005), received rave reviews and the prestigious Man Booker Prize. He has been compared to Nabokov for his poetic style, but Cormac McCarthy also comes to mind; both writers can capture the commonplace and elevate it to tragic levels with precise lyrical prose. Plot is not Banville's strength and he recently dismissed the novel as an "uninteresting art form." Thus his book is more a disturbing meditation than a plot-driven narrative. The main character, art critic and recent widower Max Morden, is not particularly likeable. The presence of the sea acts as a metaphor for the ebb and flow of life.

Max, a middle-aged Irishman, has come back to a seaside town where he spent his summer holidays as a child and met the Graces, a dramatic family including the rebellious Chloe, her seductive mother and a mute twin brother, Myles. The novel explores his childhood memories of the Graces or "gods" as they are called, the memories his late wife--Anna--plus the combative relationship with his daughter, Claire, who wants to pull him from his grief. The past beats inside Max "like a second heart." At times, The Sea suggests a raging monologue from a Beckett novel.

Banville jumps back and forth in time throughout the novel, often showing Max's relationship with Anna and her stoic struggle with a terminal illness. Max got Anna's money but did he ever really love her? There is nothing romantic or heroic about Max.

Max doesn't trust his own memory, which makes him at times, an unreliable narrator. This and the lack of any action-driven plot may bore some American readers. The power of the book lies in the lyrical prose and the interior memories. As a stylist, Banville has few peers. Each precise sentence can unlock a feeling, and he isn't afraid to use words that may drive his readers to the dictionary.

Though Max is bitter and judgmental, anyone who has lost someone close may feel a kinship with Max, whose grief is revealed gradually, along with his penchant for alcohol. At times, he wishes his wife were a ghost and would return. Her death isn't the only nightmare of the past that confronts him on the shore of this quiet seaside town.

The Sea is a powerful story of loss told in resonant, dazzling language.