“The Sea” a novel by John Banville, 2005

This book was recommended to me by a young adult relative. He was supposed to have read it for a college course in Irish Literature. But he didn’t… I think it would be more appreciated by older readers, but I can understand why it was part of a course. It’s so good!

The Sea is about death and memory. The author looks back on childhood as “the time of the gods”, a time of struggle to understand incomprehensible surroundings and mysterious people (adults). Several deaths frame the action. A pair of twins die when the author is vacationing with his family by the ocean. The story is narrated from the other end of life, just after the narrator’s wife has died (horribly) from cancer. 

The twins seem mythic – girl and boy, voluble and silent, normal (whatever that means) and abnormal (in contemporary terms, handicapped). The narrator seeks them out, fascinated by their upper class status and the vast differences between their family and his own. The twins’ deaths are incomprehensible, shocking, unexplained. Probably all death seems that way to a 13 year old. 

Enough detail is supplied to convince us that the wife’s death is brutal. The narrator, suffering, revisits the scenes of his childhood relationship with the twins and their family, without knowing why he does so. He drinks to excess, almost to death, and is pulled back into life by his companions – daughter, stranger and old, old acquaintance. 

Work makes this novel “work”? The writing is beautiful, and I don’t usually say this about authors whose vocabulary exceeds mine. The descriptions of people and settings are detailed and sensual. And the author “closes the loop”, linking beginning and end. Careful writing. I will look for other books by John Banville.

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