four-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
20-Jan-Feb-2006
user_rating: 
0

A-SeaIrish art historian Max Morden, recently widowed, revisits his childhood trauma in a quiet town by the sea. At age 11, while vacationing with his family, he became enchanted with the Grace family: blustering, masculine Carlo, his sumptuous wife Connie, and their sinister twin children, pale Chloe and mute Myles. That summer brought sexual emergence and abuse. When the Graces involved Morden in their cataclysmic tragedy, he swore never to return to the sea. But there he is now, with fresh wounds from the death of his wife—an unpleasant, pained man meditating on his memories.
Knopf. 195 pages. $23. ISBN: 0307263118

Los Angeles Times 5 of 5 Stars
"As Michael Cunningham’s The Hours was to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, so, roughly, is The Sea to The Turn of the Screw. It is deconstruction and homage at once, an utterly contemporary novel that nonetheless could only have come from a mind steeped in the history of the novel and deeply reflective about what makes fiction still worthwhile." Jack Miles

Boston Globe 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[T]he power of Banville’s prose—as gorgeously formidable as the cliffs on the Irish Sea—distracts us from the truth, which is that the narrator, unlucky bloke that he may be, is not a likable man. … The Sea, a story both camouflaged and uplifted by its beauty, is an existential thriller of sorts—its central character the missing corpse as well as liberator, a man trying to gain purchase on the rock face of life despite its bitter nonchalance." Gail Caldwell

USA Today 4.5 of 5 Stars
"For readers who take books and literature seriously, The Sea is a must-have. One periodically rereads a sentence just to marvel at its beauty, originality and elegance. … Like Nabokov, Banville describes everything with the precision of a scientist and the language of a poet." Deirdre Donahue

Washington Post4.5 of 5 Stars
"Banville’s achievement seems remarkable to me. … [T]he power and strangeness and piercing beauty of its fragments are all, and are a wonder." John Crowley

Christian Science Monitor4 of 5 Stars
"If you (a) know that ‘tod’ is the German word for death (I had to look it up) or (b) like such erudite word play, you’ll love what Banville is doing here. If your reaction is, ‘what a pretentious jerk,’ you’ve summed up Max pretty well, but you might want to pick out a different book." Yvonne Zipp

Seattle Times4 of 5 Stars
"His simple story line and subtle plot structure blend with a mesmerizing narrative voice to reveal a complex memoir of love, grief and a ‘journey of surpassing but inexplicable importance.’" Robert Allen Papinchak

New York Times 1 of 5 Stars
"[A] stilted, claustrophobic and numbingly pretentious tale. … Though The Sea may deal with some of the gravest issues of life—death, loss, regret—it remains, in the end, a chilly, dessicated and pompously written book that stands in sharp contrast to the vibrancy of many of this year’s other Booker nominees." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

In his Booker-winning novel, Banville’s language is captivating. Critics (unless you’re Michiko Kakutani, who found little to like) frequently compare his intricate, powerful imagery to that of Nabokov. It is the intense beauty of his language that allows readers to work through the often discomforting characters and stories he renders—from cruel men to indifferent deaths. In this story of coming-of-age and inexplicable loss, Banville leads us to the cliffs and dark waves of the Irish coast by the light of his words. But he leaves us there to embrace the darkness and the truth of recollection—even if those memories differ from what actually happened.