The Sea by John Banville (2005) 264 p.
The Sea, winner of the 2005 Booker Prize, reminded me Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. They’re both short, dull books about old men reflecting on their childhoods. Maybe that’s all you need to write about to win the Booker. Barnes’ is in any case the stronger book, dealing as it does with the unreliable nature of memory itself. Banville’s The Sea is an unremarkable novel following an elderly art critic as he returns to the seaside holiday house of his childhood after the death of his wife from cancer. The Sea is told in a fragmented style, jumping back and forth between his childhood and his wife’s slow death and his present existence in solitude on the Irish coast.
Sometimes I read an acclaimed book and don’t enjoy it, which was the case with The Sense of an Ending, and I feel like the fault is mine – that I missed something, or that I wasn’t smart enough to appreciate it. Not the case with The Sea, which is boring, plain and simple. It’s mostly blather about Max’s boyhood crushes and sexual repression expressed in tiresome, pretentious prose:
One moment she was Connie Grace, her husband’s wife, her children’s mother, the next she was an object of helpless veneration, a faceless idol, ancient and elemental, conjured by the force of my desire, and then something in her had suddenly gone slack, and I had felt a qualm of revulsion and shame, not shame for myself and what I had purloined of her but, obscurely, for the woman herself, and not for anything she had done, either, but for what she was, as with a hoarse moan she turned on her side and toppled into sleep, no longer a demon temptress but herself only, a mortal woman.
I suppose Banville gets points for realism – reading The Sea is exactly as entertaining and enlightening as listening to an old man pontificate at length about sexual memories from his childhood. There’s also an unlikely ending to his childhood tales, a boring twist, and a non-climactic climax as where gets drunk on the beach. And I often wonder why authors who write in such overwrought prose style, and who insist on seeing deep portents in every glance and comment and plastic bag flying down the street, don’t stick to poetry.
On a final note, this was shortlisted alongside Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which is the far superior novel. A shame, but neither the first nor the last time the Booker committee made a terrible decision.