Over my holiday I read John Banville’s The Sea very slowly. I think he is a good author to take slowly, and I liked being able to take up with the book a little each day and meander through his careful sentences. The Sea is an interesting novel, with not much resembling any sort of plot. Despite the quietness of the narrator’s account and his sometimes hazy focus, there are two stories vying for attention – narrator Max’s childhood memory and his feelings about a more recent, but significant loss. But even without any overt plot, there is movement. Max uses his memories of the one painful experience to get to the heart of the other, much more powerful one.
I mentioned before that my initial experience with The Sea was slightly disappointing because it reminded me so quickly of the Banville novel I read and loved last year – Eclipse. As I got deeper into The Sea, some of the resemblance wore off, but the more striking similarities remained. Especially the overall narrative tone and how the book features a narrator escaping into the past to deal with a present trauma.
Now I happened to really like the narrator in Eclipse, so finding him in slightly altered form in The Sea wasn’t necessarily a problem for me. I just had to make some small adjustments to my expectations, to try and banish my vision of Alex from Eclipse and let Max come into his own. There were differences, although mostly in detail, not much in tone and emotional structure.
There was something very ominous about The Sea, a moody and threatening subtext which I think created much of the novel’s tension. I felt this mostly when Max went into the past to describe his relationship with the Grace family but it was there in his more recent memories as well and in his current-day conversations with his daughter or the other residents of the hotel where he is staying. I saw this as Banville’s acceptance of the more dangerous aspects of grief. Not the danger of suffering, or the way sadness can surreptitiously and wholly take over, but more a kind of simmering violence. The understanding that things are not right, and that they won’t ever be right.
This is only my second Banville novel and I’m sure I’ll be looking for more, if anything just to enjoy the thick texture of his writing. There were moments when I wished he’d taken a simpler route to convey a thought or two, but on the whole I like his layering and complicated sentences, his obscure word choice and heavy images. This type of writing asks me to slow down and measure out the rhythm of each word.