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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Sea

John Banville

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To purchase The Sea

Title: The Sea
Author: John Banville
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005
Length: 195 pages
Availability: The Sea - US
The Sea - UK
The Sea - Canada
La mer - France
Die See - Deutschland
Il mare - Italia
El mar - España
  • Man Booker Prize winner, 2005

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Our Assessment:

A- : subdued mourning-tale, nicely done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 8/11/2005 Yvonne Zipp
The Economist . 13/10/2005 .
The Guardian . 25/6/2005 Finn Fordham
Independent on Sunday A+ 4/9/2005 John Tague
London Rev. of Books A 4/8/2005 Adam Phillips
The LA Times A 6/11/2005 Jack Miles
New Statesman . 20/6/2005 Brian Dillon
The NY Observer . 14/11/2005 David Thomson
The NY Times F 1/11/2005 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 27/11/2005 Terrence Rafferty
The New Yorker . 14/11/2005 .
People A 14/11/2005 Lee Aitken
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Spring/2006 Steven G. Kellman
The Spectator A 7/5/2005 Sebastian Smee
Sunday Times D 12/6/2005 David Grylls
The Telegraph A+ 5/6/2005 Lewis Jones
The Telegraph . 7/6/2005 Tibor Fischer
TLS D 3/6/2005 Robert MacFarlane
USA Today . 7/11/2005 Deirdre Donahue
The Village Voice . 14/11/2005 Jessica Winter
The Washington Post . 13/11/2005 John Crowley

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, with opinions tending toward the extremes

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Sea is ultimately not as cold as its counterpart. There's a sense of consolation at its conclusion that's anything but indifferent." - Yvonne Zipp, Christian Science Monitor

  • "Mr Banville's style affords the reader a voluptuous, unfashionable pleasure that grows with every re-reading of the book and casts the story with ease into second place." - The Economist

  • "Literary allusions play hide and seek in this very literary novel. (...) Soliloquist and solipsist, Morden is deaf to dialogue, something generally lacking in Banville's prose: what speech appears is fragmented, reported, misheard. But Banville turns this to his advantage: his narrators portray limited visions of the world as a series of paintings, fixed, mute and still." - Finn Fordham, The Guardian

  • "The Sea is not a lengthy novel, but by its end I felt heady and a little off-balance, so distilled and intense is its cumulative strength. (...) Banville demonstrates a masterful technical control of his material. The narrative moves in a stately, tidal motion across the past as Max loses himself in reveries. (...) It confirms Banville's reputation as once of finest prose stylists working in English today and, in the sheer beauty of its achievement, is unlikely to be bettered by any other novel published this year." - John Tague, Independent on Sunday

  • "In The Sea Banville has written an utterly absorbing novel about the strange workings of grief, and the gratuitous dramas of memory. (...) The disillusionment with memory that is everywhere in The Sea, though nowhere polemical or wearyingly insistent, is a testament to the fact that -- for those for whom the gods have departed -- memory has become redemptive." - Adam Phillips, London Review of Books

  • "As Michael Cunningham's The Hours was to Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, so, roughly, is The Sea to The Turn of the Screw. It is deconstruction and homage at once, an utterly contemporary novel that nonetheless could only have come from a mind steeped in the history of the novel and deeply reflective about what makes fiction still worthwhile." - Jack Miles, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(A) novel where the real drama is in the perplex of botched approaches to the past." - Brian Dillon, New Statesman

  • "Thereís nothing sportive, coruscating or especially witty in this book. Like everything else by Mr. Banville that Iíve read (and liked), the novel is founded in the gradual uncovering of true, if shy, feeling. Heís Irish. (...) The Sea has me marooned. There may be a comic construct at work that has missed me in the night. (...) Too much of The Sea is an elbow in the readerís ribs, and a weird uneasiness on the part of the writer." - David Thomson, The New York Observer

  • "(S)tilted, claustrophobic and numbingly pretentious (.....) Max sounds like an annoying Peter Handke character on a bad day. (...) (A) chilly, desiccated and pompously written book" - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "What's strangest about The Sea is that the novel somehow becomes simpler and clearer as it gets more self-conscious: a consequence, I suppose, of the author dropping the pretense of being one kind of writer and giving in to his authentic and much more complicated creative nature. This misshapen but affecting novel turns out to be about something even more familiar than the loss of innocence: it's about grief, the misery and confusion the narrator feels on losing his wife." - Terrence Rafferty, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The plot is minimal; instead, the novel's drama takes place in Banville's remarkable imagery" - The New Yorker

  • "Banville is a master at capturing the most fleeting memory or excruciating twinge of self-awareness with riveting accuracy. So it hardly matters that the book unfolds without much action" - Lee Aitken, People

  • "An exercise in repetition compulsion, The Sea demands a reader willing to chew over its sumptuous but elliptical sentences, in quest of all there is to learn of Max." - Steven G. Kellman, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "The somewhat contrived revelations at the end I found disconcerting ó or at least unnecessary (...). But then again, I was not unduly bothered; the drama of exposure seemed to interfere with the atmosphere of lassitude and unknowingness I had relished, but the conceit involved is well-handled, and even rather exciting. It is a brilliant, sensuous, discombobulating novel." - Sebastian Smee, The Spectator

  • "Banville has a talent for sensuous phrasing, and pungent observation of human frailty, but in other areas important for fiction -- plot, character, pacing, suspense -- The Sea is a crashing disappointment." - David Grylls, Sunday Times

  • "(H)is best novel so far. (...) All this sounds horribly pretentious, and so it is, in a way, but it is deftly done, and never quite overdone. And Banville's prose is sublime. Several times on every page the reader is arrested by a line or sentence that demands to be read again. They are like hits of some delicious drug, these sentences. One has to stop for a while, and gaze smiling and unseeing into the middle distance, before returning to the page for one's next fix. For a shortish book, it takes a long time to read." - Lewis Jones, The Telegraph

  • "As the novel progressed I realised that it was more like sitting an exam than taking in a tale: Banville's text is one that constantly demands admiration and analysis. Bard of Hartford ? Nom d'appareil ? Cracaleured ? If the preciosity was used solely for comic effect it would work better, but I suspect Banville is after some elegiac granite here. (...) The Sea has some sharp vignettes and its characters occasionally jerk into life, but story deficiency would, I'm afraid, be my final diagnosis. (...) There's lots of lovely language, but not much novel." - Tibor Fischer, The Telegraph

  • "The Sea, indeed, might qualify as a novel-sized anagram, since it permutes so many of Banville's distinctive tropes, traits and tics. (...) In The Sea,, however, vagueness serves no higher intellectual purpose. The languorous ambience of Max's prose, indeed the entire structure of the novel, seems to exist only to permit Banville his exquisite scrimshaws of style. One reads the novel by turns admiring the polish of the language, and frustrated by a sense of authorial self indulgence and safety -- the familiar images and performances, the gelid plot, the inconsequentiality of it all. (...) The Sea, feels -- disappointingly from such a gifted and interesting writer -- tired and retried, and other near-anagrams indicating second-handedness." - Robert MacFarlane, Times Literary Supplement

  • "For readers who take books and literature seriously, The Sea is a must-have. One periodically rereads a sentence just to marvel at its beauty, originality and elegance. (...) The Sea offers an extraordinary meditation on mortality, grief, death, childhood and memory. It's not a comfortable novel, but it is undeniably brilliant." - Deirdre Donahue, USA Today

  • "Banville's famously torrid affair with his thesaurus has previously birthed erudite but emotionally delimited characters, whose fierce powers of observation and description are rendered poignantly meaningless by failings of moral temperament, but The Sea nudges this pathos toward parody. (...) Brandishing Roget's apotropaic caduceus, Banville's prose is flocculent and positively crepitant with memory's torsions, but the strangury of obscure vocabulary tends to embalm The Sea in a hebetudinous catafalque." - Jessica Winter, The Village Voice

  • "It seems that Max (and his maker) are engaged not in the working out of a character's actions through time -- the usual business of a novel -- but in the limning of moments of stillness, as a poem or a painting might. (...) (T)he power and strangeness and piercing beauty of its fragments are all, and are a wonder." - John Crowley, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Sea is narrated by Max Morden, who has recently been widowed. He has come to a seaside resort where he had spent the summer holidays with his parents when he was a child. Ostensibly, he's working on a monograph on Bonnard, but in fact it's the pull of the sea and the past that draws him here. He is grieving for his wife Anna, and he is dealing with the pain of having watched a loved one waste away and die, and of surviving, and of the difficulty of having to go on, alone.
       The pull of the sea, at this particular locale, turns out to be a strong one for reasons that are not immediately made clear. But it's not merely nostalgia for lost childhood, a return to a place of happiness or safety or simpler, that brings him here. Indeed, there's a darkness, roughness, and shabbiness to the place -- not quite ominous, but suggestive.
       The narrative moves back and forth between the present and the past -- both the immediate one, the "plague year" of Anna's decline and death, as well as memories from their life together, as well as memories of a summer from his childhood spent here. Very occasionally, Max's visceral anguish about his wife's death come through -- interjected cries of pain ("You cunt, you fucking cunt, how could you go and leave me like this") that he barely acknowledges -- but for the most part his narrative is remarkably controlled, relating and admitting to the good and the bad, a subdued look back at a generally happy marriage. The focus on the summer from his childhood seems, at first, an odd choice of what to turn and return to, but, though for the most part Max seems to be coping with his wife's death quite well, it can be understood as the sort of escape he needs. As it turns out, it is, of course, considerably more.
       The summer he revisits is the one when he was ten or eleven, and the Grace family rented one of the local summer houses. At first the boy was attracted to the mother, but when he gets to know the twin children, Chloe and the mute Myles, he eventually falls for the girl. His memories are of a summer of first love, though of the clumsy sort of children, still playing by their own rules. (Banville does a wonderful job of describing the awkward interplay between the children as they get to know each other, relationships governed by uncertainty more than anything else.) Chloe's capriciousness, and her close relationship -- a connexion incomprehensible to outsiders -- with her brother mystify him, but in the way the world with all its unknowns is generally mystifying for children he is happy enough to just go along with it.
       The Sea is an attempt to recapture the past. Not an idyll, in the case of his childhood, because even though this past was a time of wonder it was also a dark one: here, as also later in life, Max is not always happy with the moral compromises he makes -- harmless enough, generally, and yet leaving a bad taste. The closer past, his life with Anna, is the lost time he really mourns, but it is only in that summer from his childhood that he finds a way of confronting it.
       His daughter, Claire, accuses: "You live in the past". It certainty appeals to him: no unpleasant surprises, only the warm glow of favoured memories. But past, like present, can't be reshaped entirely to fit our needs, and the painful can't be kept at bay. Max only reveals near the end what made that summer with the Graces so significant, a resolution a bit too tidily tied up (especially regarding the one character from the past that resurfaces), but overall a successful and, despite its restraint, in some ways stunning denouement. The Sea chronicles his struggle with death and loss, and in finally putting all the pieces together packs quite the punch.
       Coming to the sea is a test for Max. He recognises the danger of his past-obsession: "There are moments when the past has a force so strong it seems one might be annihilated by it." Indeed, he feels overwhelmed from the first -- "I may go mad here. Deedle deedle." -- but this is the place he must be to come to terms with past, present, and future.
       Memory also plays games (and so does Max, occasionally), and his account is a mix of precision and questions, Banville expertly describing how we relive our pasts, that mix of memories we choose and those forced upon us, and the shifts between absolute clarity and dream-like vagueness. Max imagines living solely in the remembered memories of the past, but realises -- and proves every step of the way -- that memory is inconstant, a gapped blur, that it is, indeed, like the ever-changing huge expanse that is the sea.
       The Sea feels like an almost off-hand story, a sad man who drinks too much reflecting haphazardly on his life. It doesn't even really build up to the denouement(s) -- which makes it all the more effective, in the end, but also demands more patience from the reader. The jumps between present, his past with Anna, and his childhood -- along with asides about his daughter -- almost disguise how remarkably well built up the story is, how many small clues about so many different things are littered throughout the text. (It is book that gains from -- and is well worth -- re-reading.) Similarly, Banville's use of language -- the reader is immediately confronted with: "that vast bowl of water bulging like a blister, lead-blue and malignantly agleam", and Banville continues in this vein -- is almost distracting (at least on a first reading), style threatening to overwhelm story.
       Despite being so short, and despite the seemingly casual tone of much of it, The Sea is a rich, packed story. The familiar and distinctive Banville tropes and vocabulary (i.e. the liberal use of obscure words you've never seen used before) are perhaps too familiar, as is the character of Max himself, who would fit just as comfortably in many of Banville's other books, but it is still an impressive achievement. (One of the problems of the book being so obviously from Banville's hand is that it's hard to take some of the passages as seriously as they're meant: readers familiar with his work have come to expect portentous sea-scenes and the like, and probably don't read as much into these typically Banvillian descriptions as they should.) Max's desperation, and his wrestling with grief, mortality, and his own life -- how he has lived it so far, and how he might live his remaining days -- are very well related, and make for a thoughtful and powerful read.

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The Sea: Reviews: John Banville: Other books by John Banville under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Irish literature at the complete review
  • See Index of contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       Irish author John Banville was born in 1945. He has written a number of highly acclaimed novels.

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© 2005-2021 the complete review

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