It is no easy thing to pinpoint the precise moment when a life changes, when the different things a man might do are rendered impossible.
In THE SEA, winner of the 2005 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, narrator Max Morden returns to the seaside spot where he spent his holidays as a boy. He comes back to mourn his wife, dead of cancer, contemplate his own death, and remember the incidents of a certain summer. Impressively, the novel tacks in two directions at once, capturing the beginning of Max's life and the near end with equal poignancy.
In the beginning, Max was an unhappy, lonely boy, embarrassed by his poverty and the unending squabbles of his mother and soon-to-depart father. He attaches himself to the Grace family, glamoured by the differences between their family and his own, and smitten with the women: Connie Grace, the seductive mother; Rose, the black-haired governess; and Chloe, fearless twin to the creepily silent Myles. They are fascinating, not for anything they do but simply for who they are, and John Banville has such a way with telling details that Max's recollections of a family on the brink of tragedy are almost painfully vivid.
In the end, Max is an art critic, immersed in mourning and self-loathing. His pain does not soften him at all toward his own daughter, whom he dismisses with condescension and unwitting cruelty. Nor does it dim his descriptive powers. The empty seaside town, his rundown hotel, even his fellow guests, do not escape his notice. Max is fascinated by one of his fellow guests, a retired military man; he details his schedule, clothes, and eating habits as if he sees him as a stand-in for himself so he does not have to face his own frailty.
It's hard to find a review of any of John Banville's works that fails to mention the beauty of his writing. He's certainly in top form here, relating Max's experiences with the Grace family in a way that captures his innocence and his misunderstanding and shocks the reader with the immediacy of the tragedy. The effects of Max's early summer never stop resonating, and he never really grows up. His stunted adolescence hardly could be plainer than when he realizes that he is not the only one whose life was altered forever.
Reviewed by Colleen Quinn (CQuinn9368@yahoo.com) on January 23, 2011