Fri 22 November 2019
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Review: The Sea
Rebecca Roughan reviews John Banville's Booker Prize Winning novel, The Sea

‘The Sea’ by John Banville is a beautifully crafted and poetically remarkable book, which tells the story of the return of the narrator Max Morden - an art historian, to the seaside town in which he spent one ill-fated summer that impacted on the rest of his life. His return vacation, sparked by another life-changing occurrence allows the book to take a retrospectively brooding tone, as Morden vacillates between longing for the past and coping with the present.

Banville’s skill with words allows for powerful imagery, “the past beats inside me like a second heart”, summarizes the entire theme of the novel. The significance Max attributes to the tragic occurrences of his past. This vivid style of writing allows the author to explore the relationships, both past and present, of the narrator, the three key women in his life, his daughter, his wife and the “god” he spent time with as a child in the town, Chloe Grace. However, despite the beautifully eloquent style with which The Sea is written, in my opinion, it fails to keep the attention of the reader.

The ‘poetic’ tone is often condescendingly complex with words such as “velutinous” and “horrent” sprinkled about so often, that one cannot help but concede Banville has spent far too long with a thesaurus. It is, in fact, almost depressingly reminiscent of a GCSE English coursework that some entrepreneurial student has attempted to improve by searching for synonyms for even the most insignificant words. Added to this, the protagonist’s profession leads to numerous frustratingly monotonous references to art, for example he compares his daughter to Tenniel’s drawing of Alice.

The book starts promisingly “They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide”, implying that there is an enticing secret to be revealed and yet, though expectation for the divulgence of the ‘twist’ is built up and the veneration that the narrator acts out towards the Graces becomes even more embarrassing, much like the wave depicted on the front cover, one gets the overwhelming feeling that it will crash into nothing. Here, for once, the author does not disappoint, the twist, or twists even, are not only predictable, but also
frustratingly ambiguous.

Nevertheless, the novel is not appalling. One does not suffer whilst reading it, although as the central character astutely notes, that rather depends “on what you mean by suffering”. It is brilliantly written and despite being slightly tedious, it is crafted with so much illustrative attention that it is definitely worth reading, even merely for the fact it will expand your vocabulary within the first few pages. Yet is definitely not a page-turner. The youthful attentions that the young Max portrays are certainly relatable, as is his later character, but it is all just spoilt by the incessant addition of ridiculous words and references. These give the impression that Banville feels he has something to prove as an author, perhaps the use of obscure words, he believes, links to writing success.

In spite of this, I would certainly recommend reading it, though without an expectation to be engrossed, and just try to overlook the absurdity of the attempts of the author to nonchalantly add the word “ziggurat” into an otherwise simplistic sentence. A review of the book by The Times summed the story up well by explaining that it is simultaneously about “growing up and growing old”, but, unsurprisingly, a reader does not expect to feel themselves grow old reading it.

Rebecca Roughan is a book reviewer for the Young Writers' Hub

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