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The Sea – John Banville

The Sea by John Banville


I was compelled to read this immediately after finishing Never Let Me Go. Call me a rabid fan of the novel, yes. I admit it. I have no shame. And I cannot believe why it did not win the Booker Prize of 2005.

And this, The Sea, written by an unknown writer to me back then, was chosen by that year’s jury as the winner. Of course I was intrigued. I am glad I have a copy, a mass market I bought four years ago at regular price. I am not sure why I didn’t immediately read it. I was not a voracious reader four years ago. All I know is that had it not been a Booker winner, I wouldn’t have hoarded it.

So you might be expecting to read at least a couple of bad things from me about it, yes?

The Rhapsody

No. I love The Sea. I love the language. If you ask me, it’s more of a book of poetry than a novel. Wait, let us correct that. It is a novel of poetry.

The reader is immersed in the beautiful words that the narrator uses. His name is Max, an art historian. So that explains it. You can expect beautiful storytelling from the point of view of an artist. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is not counted, but let’s not talk about that.

So what is this all about? It’s a novel of a man’s recollection of his holiday when he was a child in a town by the sea. He either draws or is drawn by the fraternal twins Chloe and Myles, who are more aptly described as polar twins because of their vast differences. The former is a strong-headed, willful girl while the latter is an uninteresting boy who deliberately keeps his mouth shut.

And there are the twin’s parents who have the means to live a worldly life. This makes Max almost wish to be a part of this family because of his own poverty. Well, he is not poor poor, but you know, he couldn’t afford to live the lives that this family is living.

And what else? I really cannot recall. And how could I daresay that this is a novel worth reading? If you really want to know, this novel is not read because of the plot or the characters. Really, nothing is going on like in one of those Dan Brown novels. But there are subtle developments. There are hints of haunting and melancholy dropped here and there. One just needs to keep an open ear to hear those, like leaves falling from the reaching branch of a sheltering tree. One can flip the pages of this book, pick a few random lines, and love it just the same.

Okay, so let us test that practice:

It was her special gift, the disenchanted, disenchanting, eye. I am thinking of the photographs she took in the hospital, at the end, at the beginning of the end, when she was still undergoing treatment and had strength enough to get up from her bed unaided. She had Claire search out her camera, it was years since she had used it. The prospect of this return to an old obsession gave me a strong yet unaccountable sense of foreboding. I found disturbing too, although again I could not have said exactly why, the fact that it was Claire, and not I, whom she had asked to fetch the camera, and in the tacit understanding, furthermore, that I was not to hear of it. What did it mean, all this secrecy and hugger-mugger?

Please don’t ask me who Claire is. It could be his wife or daughter or mom. Anyway, I’d like to flip the book again, one more time.

In those endless October nights, lying side by side in the darkness, toppled statues of ourselves, we sought escape from an intolerable present in the only tense possible, the past, that is, the faraway past. We went back over our earliest days together, reminding, correcting, helping each other, like two ancients tottering arm-in-arm along the ramparts of a town where they had once lived, long ago.

Sensuous! I saw, in my mind’s eye, the two “toppled statues.” In this passage, we see that Banville does not write to impress, which some haters accuse him of. He writes with precision, making sure that the words are not wasted, the commas correctly placed, the sentences assuming a lyrical form. This talent cannot be neglected.

And if one cannot hear the music in these random paragraphs, he is deaf to the melody of literature.

4 star - really liked itFinal Notes

I think that Banville deserves the 2005 Booker. Tough luck for Ishiguro, but not so tough because he already have his Booker for The Remains of the Day and film adaptations for two of his novels, which feature some of the film industry’s finer actors and actresses.

But after I finished it, I felt that the events that took hold of the twin’s lives is senseless. I didn’t get why they did what they did. It’s dumbfoundlingly tragic, sublimely shocking, profoundly disarming. Just like that.

And I can’t help flipping the pages all over again. It makes me want to reread it immediately, but no, I have to fight against it. I’ll just finish this with this last clip that I caught, a passage that I, coincidentally, like and which pretty much sums up the novel:

And yet, what existence, really, does it have, the past? After all, it is only what the present was, once, the present that is gone, no more than that. And yet.


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