Look back in wonder
Author: John Banville
„The past beats inside me like a second heart."
I do not know what to make of this book (Booker Prize winner in 2005). We were supposed to cover it during a postgraduate course, but we never got to it. Now I'm free to misinterpret every bit of it.
To put it plainly, The Sea is a book about an elderly man who intentionally gets his memories a bit mixed up. Having lost his wife, Anna, to cancer, he travells along with his rarely mentioned daughter to a sea resort. Because that's what you do with bereavement: you show it pretty sights and wait for it to concede that they're pretty.
Thus Max, the narrator, starts retrieving his prepubescent memories: the father's desertion, his first crush, on a married woman whose twin children, Chloe and Myles, are to become not quite his friends, but his playmates, the family secrets he discovers by mistake, the suicide he witnesses and remains unable to explain. „I looked aside quickly for fear my eyes would give me away; one's eyes are always those of someone else, the mad and desperate dwarf crouched within." This character is no competitor to McEwan’s Briony Tallis: what he sees he keeps to himself, what he regrets are his own various disillusionments.
In fact, Max's enduring self-criticism makes him tolerant of everyone else's shortcomings. Took a rich wife in order to indulge in his passion for art and history? Guilty as charged. Fell for average women? Indeed. Venerated Yahweh, the destroyer of worlds? Well, he argues: „Given the world that he created, it would be an impiety against God to believe in him."
Shown in such exquisite detail Max’s memories of the summer spent with Chloe, Myles, their governess and parents (five people baffling each in his or her own manner), and, alongside, his perception of Anna's terminal illness, the reader is distracted from wondering about the life in between. Youth and maturity are dismissed in a few sentences: there was some sort of happiness, a daughter came along who was loved and then apparently set free to make her deliberate mistakes, there was a moderately successful career, there were parties and social events. There were secondary characters who return to remain secondary.
In Max’s words just before the end, "indeed nothing had happened, a momentous nothing, just another of the great world's shrugs of indifference." Confronted with the unsympathetic charms of the sea, one sets aside most anecdotes that have been told and retold over the years. In the right hands, what remains will make a greater story.
A crafty voice, that does not linger on any memory long enough to let you draw any conclusion; a great number of mysterious characters, made so by the limited point of view.
You might find the pace sluggish at times.
Readers of Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, John McGahern.