‘The Sea’ drowns; not a deep novel

“The past beats inside me like a second heart,” writes John Banville, Temple’s fall 2005 visiting author, in The Sea. Banville’s 14th and latest novel is the recipient of the 2005 Man Booker Prize for fiction – the British Commonwealth’s most prestigious literary award.

However, it seems almost as if The Sea’s narrator needs a second heart, judging from the anemic, lifeless prose with which he writes.

Max Morden, the aging Irishman who narrates The Sea, has returned to his childhood summer home and site of his most enduring memories of youth following the death of his wife. Between drinking binges and conflicts with his grown daughter, Max records his more recent memories of his wife, Anna. The book’s true focus, however, are those more dated memories of Chloe – Max’s first and strongest love.

Interwoven with the tale of how Max loved and lost both Anna and Chloe are his ruminations on the nature of memory and its subjectivity.

Max frequently dwells for pages on his awareness of how his own memories of people and events have been altered over time.

At times Banville’s writing becomes hauntingly beautiful, almost poetic – especially when he gives descriptions of the people, places and things that populate the story. Max’s descriptions of Anna, Chloe and her family, the resort at which Chloe, and now he, upon his return vacationed, the weather, the beaches and the sea are of particular power. But too often, Banville allows Max to sink into solid contemplation of the nature of love and death, at the expense of any real development of his characters.

Properly penned, Max’s tragic story of love lost had the potential to ascend to the haunting level of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Instead, Banville’s affinity for pretentious ruminations at the expense of emotional evocation allows the novel to slip into mediocrity.

With no emotional connections behind his words, Max’s reflections seem shallow and gaudy rather than deep and penetrating, as Banville would have them be.

The Sea is a tale of memory – not haunting memory, nor joyful memory, just memory, its subjectivity and its fallibility. The story is one of love and loss, of passion and regret; but for Banville, the story is secondary to the flowery language in which it is told.

His affinity for verbose descriptions leaves the reader frustrated, as the emotional aspects of Max’s story are glossed over.

Though extremely talented in the area of physical description, in The Sea Banville seems unable, even unwilling, to allow his readers to make the emotional connections necessary for the success of his novel.

Peter Chomko can be reached at peter.chomko@temple.edu.

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