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After writing about a Man Booker Prize nominee yesterday, I decided today that I'd write a short review about a winning book that I recently read, John Banville's "The Sea", winner in 2005.
I'm a published writer myself, though alas so far of only short stories (I don't count reviews as real publishing - sorry if you do) but I do have a growing stack of novels (eight, to be exact) that I'm endlessly trying to sell. While my short stories tend to lean towards mundane sci-fi and traditional horror because those are the types I find easiest to sell, my novels are of varying genres, each one different. I've done horror, comedy, goth romance, sci-fi, psychological thriller, pop culture, and last year I decided I wanted to try literary fiction, and of course win the Booker Prize(!). In order to find out what was necessary, I decided to read a few previous winners to get an idea.
I looked up the list of previous winners and ordered this book and another called The Gathering (which is currently gathering dust on my bookshelf, only half-read).
The Sea is the story of an old art historian called Max. In the aftermath of his wife's death, he goes back to the seaside town where he spend his childhood, to reflect on his life and revisit the memories of his childhood, in particular of his play chums, Myles and Chloe Grace.
It always bugs me when I read an interview with an influential mainstream author in which they spit on literary fiction as if it was some kind of pompous rubbish that only toffs can enjoy, because I've read many a book labelled "literary" which was extremely good, had a strong plot and was written as well as the label suggested. Two that come to mind are "Atonement" by Ian McEwan (although McEwan's "Saturday is dull rubbish) and Jan Martel's "Life of Pi". "The Sea", however, unfortunately falls into the aforementioned category.
It's not that it's really rubbish. It's well written, descriptive, and evokes nostalgic emotions in the reader. It's just that it's boring. Very little happens. We have entire chapters where Banville describes Max playing at the seaside with the Grace twins where nothing of any particular note happens. Max spends a lot of time just wandering around, reflecting on his relationship with his daughter and his dead wife. There are a lot of internal monologues - the first sign that a book doesn't have much of a plot.
"The Sea" is the kind of book that probably gets onto high school Eng Lit syllabus lists, where the teacher will sit at the front salivating over the prose while the students try to keep their eyes open. I don't like to slate it because it was obviously good enough to win one of the world's biggest fiction prizes, but if this is what's necessary to win the Booker Prize then no thank you, I get enough sleep at night, I don't need to fall asleep while I'm trying to write.
It's mercifully short at just 262 pages, and I did manage to get to the end, only because I wanted to read about this big dramatic event that is constantly alluded to throughout the novel. However, when it does finally happen it isn't actually very dramatic at all and left me feeling a little short-changed, even if I only bought this through Amazon Marketplace.
Overall, I'm pleased that I read this book, if only to understand better the kind of book I don't want to write, but I can't recommend it.
I always like to take appropriate reading matter with me when going on holiday, when I knew I'd go to the Algarve in Portugal I browsed through Amazon and found the novel The Sea by John Banville, I thought it was just perfect for some days on the beach. I have to add that I knew nothing about the author or the book, I did not know that Banville (born in Wexford, Ireland, in 1945) won the Man Booker Prize with this novel in 2005, but when I discovered this news in the blurbs I was happy to have ordered a good book indeed.
But was it a good book?
I've also learnt from the blurbs that Banville is famous for his poetic language, Seamus Heaney, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 calls Banville an 'arch stylist', fine, I love language as such and looked forward to the reading. The first pages describing the sea and the landscape pleased me, but on page 10 I found the sentence, 'Tall grasses in the ditch, blond like the woman's hair, shivered briefly and returned to their former dreaming stillness', a harmless sentence, but it interrupted the flow of my reading, was that sheer poetry or pretentious kitsch? I didn't come to a conclusion then but I put up my antennae so-to-speak ready to detect other figures of speech and terms that would answer the question.
The story is told in the first person perspective by Max, an art historian in his sixties who has come to the seaside resort where he used to spend his childhood summers. He's staying in a boarding house as a lodger and is thinking of moving permanently there, his wife has recently died of cancer and he doesn't want to live alone in his empty house.
There are three time levels, the old Max in the boarding house lives in the present from which he looks back at the past, the last year of his wife's illness and their life together and also at the past half a century ago, his last summer holidays which he spent at the sea, he hasn't been back since then, the different time levels aren't clearly distinguished, sometimes they flow into each other in one paragraph.
After getting into the story I didn't find it difficult to understand when things happened, what I found difficult, however, was to stay awake while reading. The people at the boarding house are old, unattractive and boring, nothing concerning them is of the least interest to me, Max's wife's cancer story could be touching, but as Max and his wife had a detached relationship and never really knew each other (and found that good as Max tells us), it arouses only faint compassion. Most space is given to Max's summer holidays long ago when he got to know the Graces, a family - parents and twin children, a boy and a girl of his age - who had come with a young governess as summer guests (to the house where he's staying now, tourists used to rent it then) and who fascinated him.
All five characters are freaks one way or the other, this could make for thrilling reading, but the way Banville describes them and their doings only makes me yawn. If I hadn't been on holiday with much time on my hands, I'd have stopped reading much sooner, as it was I dragged myself through one third of the book. Before I put it back into my suitcase I collected 19 words I didn't know, I wanted to ask some English speaking online friends if they knew them all (I doubted it).
Test yourself if you pass Mr Banville's entrance exam: anthropic, traduced, flocculent, tumid, succubus, unassuageable, etiolated, velutinous, ziggurat, ichors, effluvium, torpor, maenads, rufous, Avrilaceous, rosacea, erythema, grog blossoms, canthus. Well? The average participant of my little survey (thank you all!) didn't know 8.5 of these nineteen words.
Banville uses a sly trick to make the reader feel in the defensive, occasionally he makes Max reflect on his writing, " . . . sitting up in my ornate bed as on a catafalque, *if that is the word I want.* Or: ". . . like a Zulu warrior shaking his knobkerrie. Zulus, knobkerries? *Perhaps I mean assegais."* Max's insecurity with *these* words implies that the ones mentioned before belong to his normal vocabulary, as he doesn't come over as exceptionally intellectual, we feel that we should also know them. Banville, the arch stylist, my back bottom, he's a pretentious show-off!
And this author got the Booker Prize and 50 000 GPB last year? I couldn't believe it. Back home I looked for information on the net how the novel was received by the literary critics of the quality newspapers, I was content to learn that the opinions on it are not unanimous, far from it. "No consensus, with opinions tending toward the extremes" is what I found. Reading through the reviews I also learnt to my great surprise that something exciting happens in the story, that made me curious, nothing in the first third of the novel had pointed in that direction.
I decided to read on, always a one to give someone a second chance. When I had reached the middle of the book and the end of Part I, the most thrilling event that had taken place was that young Max had been able to peep under Mrs Grace's skirt! That couldn't be it. As I had decided to write a review on the book, I was condemned to go on, one can't write a review without reading up to the (bitter) end, can one?
I put the novel on my bedside table and made myself read a few pages every night, I can wholeheartedly recommend it to insomniacs as an ersatz sleeping-pill, never have I needed so much time to read such a short book! Finally, some pages before the end something does indeed happen which is exciting, horrible even, alas it comes too late as does the final twist revealing something about the owner of the boarding house where Max is staying. It's a good twist, yet I doubt that many readers will enjoy it, not all are as tough as I am and will stay with the author up to the end.
Pity that it isn't possible to give no star at all.
Paperback first published in 2006